“Time is on my side….” sings an ancient Sumerian demon, who is apparently a huge fan of the Rolling Stones.
“Do you like cream?” asks a possibly crooked detective who is played by a slightly less heavy than usual James Gandolfini.
Donald Sutherland walks through a shadowy police station and flashes his big smile.
A detective played by John Goodman talks on the phone and makes cheery jokes while investigating a brutal murder.
A demon jumps from person to person, possessing everyone for a matter of seconds, just so he can freak out one specific person.
“Beware my wrath,” a white-haired businessman says to Denzel Washington.
There’s no way to deny it. 1998’s Fallen is a film that’s full of strange moments. Some of it works and some of its doesn’t but it’s never boring. Denzel Washington plays John Hobbes, a Philadelphia detective who has achieved a small amount of fame as the result of capturing serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas). Reese asks to see Hobbes before he’s executed and it turns out that, for a man about to pay the ultimate price for his crimes, he’s in a surprisingly good mood. Before he goes in the gas chamber, Reese chants something in Aramaic.
Soon, new murders are being committed in Phladelphia. Hobbes and his partner, Jonesey (John Goodman at his most Goodmanesque), suspect that the killer is a copycat, trying to capture some of Reese’s notoriety for himself. Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz), the daughter of a detective who committed suicide after being accused of committing a series of murders, tells Hobbes that the new killings are actually being committed by a demon named Azazel. Azazel can jump from body to body and can compel people to do terrible things. Gretta asks Hobbes if he belives in God. Hobbes says it’s hard to have faith when you deal with murder every day, a somewhat clichéd line that Washington makes work through the absolute conviction of his delivery,
Denzel Washington is the key to this film’s success. Sure, there’s a lot of murders and a lot of twists and a lot of possessions and there’s a lot of scenes that are shot from the point of view of the demon but, in the end, Fallen works because Washington is absolutely convincing as a man who is facing an evil that is beyond human understanding. Washington gives a very naturalistic and grounded performance, one that keeps an element of reality in Fallen regardless of how messy the story may get. When it becomes apparent that the demon is going to try to harm his brother and his nephew, Washington’s fury feels real. When Hobbes discovers that the demon has gotten to one of them, Washington’s underplayed reaction makes the scene even more poignant and painful. It’s hard to imagine Fallen being anywhere near as effective with an actor other than Denzel Washington in the lead role.
Fallen is a twisty movie. The demon moves quickly and it always seems to have a backup plan. He manipulates Hobbes into doing some things that are so terrible that you’re not sure that Hobbes is every going to recover, even if he does somehow manage to defeat Azazel. Hobbes and Azazel are worthy adversaries and, as a result, the film gets away with a lot of stuff that wouldn’t otherwise work. Even the use of Time Is On My Side pays off, as the one character who you don’t want to hear sing the song suddenly starts doing a Mick Jagger impersonation and you’re just like, “Oh no, what’s going to happen now?” The film’s high point is a lengthy sequence where Hobbes stands on a busy street and watches as Azazel jumps from body to body. Everyone who passes Hobbe gives him a death glare. It’s a frightening moment, one in which Fallen captures the intensity of a nightmare.
I watched Fallen earlier today. I can’t really say that I was expecting much from it but I was surprised. It’s actually one of the better horror films that I’ve watched for the first time this month. It’s big and strange and creepy and it’s got Denzel Washington doing what he does best. What more could you ask for?