An Australian entry in its North American Premiere, Fell, is a dialogue spare, cinematically rich and visually stunning narrative feature directed by Kasimir Burgess and written by Natasha Pincus. The tonal and poetic nuances of sorrow, anger, and redemption are exemplified in the powerful tapestry of lush forest scenes captured in the Victorian Alps, Australia. The dark undertones of suspense are evoked with stellar, seething performances by the lead actors (Matt Nable, Daniel Henshall), whose inner emotional tensions threaten to explode. The film manifests the razor’s edge. Fell culminates in a high point which may veer off into an act of incredible violence or pool in soothing salvation as the characters deal with primal states of emptiness, guilt, and pain.
The narrative begins with Thomas and his daughter who are enjoying a camp-out in the beautiful forest. Both have a deep appreciation of the trees as animate beings which provide a safe haven and thriving eco-system for abundant life. Into this Edenic wilderness danger lurks in an alien form: reckless, wild, unthinking, “civilized” man. The unforeseen threatens when the daughter wanders off, too greatly lulled by the beauty and peacefulness of the forest not to be alert to warning signs. Thomas senses that his daughter is in trouble. He races in full panic to the road that threads between the swath of thick forest that a logging company is harvesting. Too late, Thomas comes upon his daughter. She lies in a pool of blood in the middle of the single lane road as a logging truck barrels away in the opposite direction, the driver refusing to stop and confront what he has done.
Brilliantly conserving his shots, director Kasimir Burgess succinctly relates the outcome of events visually as the years march forward. We see a frame of Luke serving time in prison where he looks at pictures of his baby daughter. We see a flash forward years later as he retrieves his daughter from his mom’s house so she will live with him as he reapplies for a logging job. He has served his time and intends to take care of his daughter himself. His daughter is about the same age as Thomas’ child, whom he accidentally killed.
Thomas in silent desolation leaves his partner and his urban life. When she confronts him he is stoic and unemotional; he has made up his mind. The director intimates where he is going and why in a few brilliant shot compositions of Thomas in a suit in the forest. When he takes off his suit and formal clothing in a bedroom and puts on a lumberjack’s shirt and trousers, we anticipate what he might do for he has changed his identity. When he goes to a shack in the woods and in closely framed and brief shots we see him strengthening his upper arms in preparation, we are convinced. When he goes to the logging camp where his nemesis (the driver of the truck), worked, applies for a job and is hired, we know he is stalking his child’s accidental killer.
Intercut with these brief scenes, are symbolic themes charging the state of Thomas’ inner soul as he confronts his grief, anger and guilt. He runs naked through the forest. Fully clothed in a dark suit, he lies on the forest floor arms out while the rain bathes him. Unclothed he plunges arms outstretched into a pool of water and floats on his back, eyes closed. These and additional scenes represent a meditative and silent reaffirmation of emotional cleansing and an attempt to wrestle with devastation. The scenes also are symbolic of nature’s healing grace, of a human being’s connection to elements which will nurture and help them; indeed, Thomas goes to the forest for his soul’s sustenance. But we are not convinced; he may being going there to prepare to kill Luke with his bare hands. In contrast there are scenes of Luke going into civilization for a coarse one night stand with a woman and binge drinking. The difference between the two is clear as are the results of what their actions have brought forth. Nevertheless, both are responsible, one more so than the other for Thomas’s daughter’s death.
The story telling is mythic and allows the audience to think, engage, and interact because nothing is manifestly revealed. Is Thomas going to hunt down and kill Luke? Does Luke feel any sorrow for what he has done? The mitigating influence of a woman’s presence is only represented with Luke’s mother who warns Luke that it may be too soon to take his daughter to live with him as he tries to return to work. His taking her is puzzling. Perhaps he has begun to deal with his wild and shameful action of killing and leaving the other little girl’s body in the road. On the other hand, he may be suppressing his guilt and not working through with one more thoughtless action.
We consider these issues and feel the suspense of Thomas’ intent to be in close proximity with Luke as they work for the same company and as one night Thomas visits Luke’s trailer and meets his daughter who is alone. Will he kidnap her, take her life? The irony is not lost on us when she asks Thomas if he is her angel. Surely, Thomas intends to be close to her as a surrogate daughter. The tension increases because the primal feelings the director infers in the forest scenes when Thomas is alone, are powerful. We cannot be sure whether this man may snap like the trees that the logging company fells and do her or Luke harm.
Thomas becomes friendlier with Luke who doesn’t suspect Thomas’ daughter is the one he killed. He anticipates the man’s keen interest in him when he asks Thomas about his origins; Thomas gives a nominal response. A fortuitous event occurs when the company reluctantly hires Luke as a spotter, a dangerous job where he climbs the tallest trees to get a view of the smaller locus of trees to cut down. Thomas becomes his partner in this venture. In a minimum of dialogue, Luke asks if Thomas can support his weight as he climbs; his life will be in Thomas’ hands. It would be very easy for Thomas to allow the rope to slip in an accident which would kill Luke. No one except maybe Luke’s daughter would miss him and Thomas could be her angel, visit her, and take care of her. Thomas assures Luke he will protect his life. As Luke climbs the length of the giant, amazing trees, we are ready for Thomas to let go of the rope and see Luke crash to his death, his brains bloodying the ground as Thomas’ daughter’s blood spilled onto the road.
The director pushes us into greater suspense as we attempt to divine how Thomas will destroy Luke as the men draw closer. Thomas babysits Luke’s daughter when Luke goes out on the town and gets drunk. They camp out, like Thomas camped out with his daughter. Luke’s daughter tells her father Thomas is her angel. Luke affirms that he would kill anyone who harmed his daughter. Thomas directs his gaze point blank at Luke and fires off, “It’s not easy to take a life.” Luke affirms that it is. The tension is steep and the director drives us to understand that sooner or later Luke, may in a guilty, unconscious desire provoke Thomas to kill him. Whether he senses Thomas’ interest in effecting his death or wishes his own, the director infers the mystery that runs deep in both men’s souls. And by the end of the film, Burgess has given enough clues to indicate what will occur, whether redemption, revenge or self-condemnation.
The cinematography is breathtaking, the spectacular forest scenes are primeval. The trees are vibrant with life and beauty and meaning and the director guides us to see the signs. For example, he focuses on a close-up of an ant climbing a tree. Later in a long shot of Luke climbing up a mammoth tree as spotter, Luke appears like a tiny ant. Though the film’s themes may be opaque, nature’s majesty is characterized as so overwhelming that it must be protected. The fact that the logging company is responsible for marring the forest and indirectly shedding the blood of a child through one of its agents is a disgrace. The cinematic symbolism is dense and ingenious. The visuals characterizing the logging company and the men who invade the magnificent forest with their blaring, buzzing saws smashing down trees and injuring the forest, are likened to nefarious invaders who displace and destroy. Thomas, unlike Luke, is aware of this and would never be a logger but for his mission. Perhaps he is attempting to reconcile the tragic death of his child, forgive Luke, heal himself and influence Luke to allow himself to be nurtured and healed by the forest, Perhaps not. The filmmakers revel in uncertainty.
The director settles on the question that Luke asks of Thomas. Who are you and where are you from? Thematically we empathize. Who are we and from where is our core? Are we individuals who support the taking of life and spilling of blood easily as Luke appears to state with bravado? Or through expiation do we spill our own blood and sacrifice ourselves (a possible explanation of Thomas’s repeated cutting of himself to release his vengeful spirit against Luke)? How do we attempt to release our inner impulses of death which may cause us to harm others or indirectly be responsible for their deaths? The last shot of the film is astonishing and serves as the director’s answer for Thomas, as archetypal as it is.
The film is a must see and represents an incredible first time effort for Kasimir Burgess.
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