Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Fall

The Fall is a 2013 BBC crime series.  The show features Gillian Anderson, most well-known for her role as Agent Scully in The X - Files.  The series, now in its second season, is available on Netflix and I recommend it to those who like grim, intricate police procedurals.  The premise of the program is formulaic -- a sexually obsessed serial killer is murdering young, vibrant career women.  But the show resembles True Detective, the critically acclaimed HBO series with Matthew McConnaughy and Woody Harrelson in that it is convincingly acted, frighteningly lurid, sexually explicit, and fascinating in a nasty sort of way.  The BBC show is humorless and makes its points with a sledge-hammer, but it has a particular relentlessness that entraps the viewer.      
The Fall is thematically structured compare the icy, and, apparently, heartless heroine, Officer Stella Gibson, with the serial killer.  In order to promote the show's highly questionable premise The Fall introduces us to the murderer in the first ten minutes of the first episode.  We see the murderer plot a crime and, then, consummate it and, by making one of the two protagonists the vicious killer, sets up an unpleasant, if compelling, dynamic.  The viewer is invited to identify with the sex maniac, sees the crimes through his eyes, and, even, experiences suspense as to whether he will be captured while planning and implementing his murders.  The serial killer is a married man with two small children employed as a bereavement counselor.  It is hinted that he has suffered some kind of horrific childhood.  The murderer is handsome, fearless, and bold; he keeps a journal of his criminal exploits in an attic space above the room where his seven-year old daughter sleeps.  He has a nice, if somewhat bovine, wife, a neo-natal nurse who has no idea that her hubby is strangling local girls to death for his sexual gratification.  Stella Gibson is the murderer's nemesis and the show follows her attempts to discover his identity and capture him.  By the end of the first season, the duel between the two main characters has become personal -- they taunt one another by phone. 

There is nothing in this show that you haven't seen before.  The clichés follow one another in fast and furious succession:  Stella Gibson is a loner specializing in sex crimes from MET, apparently London, and, when she becomes obsessed by the crimes, she demands to be assigned a leadership role in the Belfast investigation.  The bad guy seems to be punishing attractive career-oriented women for their sexual freedom -- as always in these kinds of shows, the price of sexual liberation is horrible death.  What is different about this program is the acting -- the killer is petulant but seems to have a kind side; he loves his wife and children, at least, ostensibly.  But he is the bereavement counselor from hell, sketching pictures of his female clients imagining them naked when they are crying in his office about their children.  He keeps a female mannequin in an abandoned shack, reads Nietzsche (and T.S. Eliot), and exercises a lot to keep himself in good shape for this torture-murders.  Of course, the icy-looking female mannequin has the features of Officer Stella Gibson and the film pictures her activities as doubling the sinister scheming of the murderer.  The show's theme is audacious and misogynistic:  the series equates Stella Gibson's casual sexual liaisons with the murderer's torture, rape and necrophilia.  This would be overtly offensive if the performance by Gillian Anderson as the domineering, sexually predatory officer from London were not so persuasive.  Anderson plays the part with frigid impersonality, indifference, and she is eerily imperturbable -- when a corrupt cop blows his brains out in front of a superior officer, she's the only person in the station who seems completely unfazed by the gory scene.  No one calls Gibson a "bitch" and everyone is afraid of her:  she presents herself as without any kind of human emotions; she is not rude or particularly unpleasant -- she is simply completely distanced and indifferent.  Indeed, there is something faintly pathetic about her isolation:  we see her swimming in a pool to maintain her magnificent figure; she writes something about her "daddy" in a dream journal that she keeps, and, entirely committed to the investigation, sleeps in a cot in her office in the police station -- she looks forlorn curled-up in the little bed.  But, of course, she is deadly -- her beauty is lethal:  the chief of police has slept with her previous to the action dramatized in the show and she seems to have permanently destroyed the man.  In a startling scene, early in the series, she invites a young officer to her hotel room, spends the night having sexual intercourse with him, and, then, refuses to take his phone calls the next day.  It doesn't matter because the character is gunned-down in the street, conveniently removing this complication from her life -- she shows no signs of sadness at all when the man is killed.  When she rehearses to other cops, the killer's torture of his victims, Gibson goes into a kind of dreamy reverie that has an unseemly subcurrent of sexual identification. (She's fond of throwing herself on the beds where victims were killed to act out the murders.)  Gillian Anderson is one of cinema's most beautiful women and her beauty has never seemed more mournful, vacant, and stricken -- she is completely impassive, her face a glamorous mask, and, indeed, in profile she looks like one of the grieving women in Picasso's Guernica

The Fall mines a rich load of misogyny and distrust between the sexes.  (This vein was also ex;ored the Jane Campion's excellent New Zealand crime drama, The End of the Lake -- a program that the BBC shows resembles.)  At one point, Gibson is talking to a female forensic pathologist.  The pathologist says something about male violence and rape.  "What do you tell your daughter?" Gibson asks.  "I tell her to not talk to strange men," the pathologist says.  "Strange men?" Gibson asks, just slightly raising an eyebrow.  "Well, any men," the pathologist replies.  Everything in the program doubles:  when a premature baby is dying in an incubator, the child's mother asks:  "Can I touch her?"  When the body of one of the killer's victims is displayed in the morgue, the girl's father asks:  "can I touch her?"  Gibson's pathetic little cot in the office mirrors the murderer's habit of sleeping with his small daughter to keep her from having nightmares -- we seem him on his side in her tiny bed.  The action is complicated by several subplots -- there is an amorous 15-year old babysitter who has fallen in love with the murderer and some cops, including Gibson's one-night stand, are involved in some sort of corruption involving, of course, drugs and sadistic violence against prostitutes.   Some viewers have complained that The Fall is too slow-paced -- I don't make this criticism.  One shot follows a beleaguered cop into his car, tracking him from door of a building to a vehicle.  My heart sank -- it seemed that the director was padding the episode. The camera records the cop sitting alone for a long time in his car and the image is shot from a deliberately inexpressive angle -- we can't really see his face.  This worried me -- but, later, when the man commits suicide, we understand the reason for these extended deliberative shots.  Everything in this series, more or less, makes sense. 


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