The Bible asks, “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” Eric Boyle, the protagonist in Richard Dutcher’s profoundly unsettling new film “Falling,” has gotten the short end of the stick: He’s lost his soul and hasn’t gained the world, either.
Dutcher, the writer and director of Mormon cinema’s “God’s Army,” “Brigham City,” and “States of Grace,” plays Eric, a lapsed Mormon who moved to L.A. to become a filmmaker but is now stuck in a life he doesn’t want. Unable to break in to the business without making something shocking or titillating, Eric pays the bills by working as a freelance videographer. He drives around L.A. all day, looking for fires, crime scenes, and other juicy events to shoot, then sells the footage to news stations. He directly profits from others’ misfortunes, and he hates it.
He has a wife, an aspiring actress named Davey (Virginia Reece) who also came to L.A. to make it big but who has also learned firsthand of the city’s soul-crushing powers. Their relationship is loving, albeit strained by their ambitions and separate internal struggles. Both have been striving for so long that they wonder if there is any limit to what they will do to succeed.
Eric may have reached his limit, or at least he recognized the limit when he sailed past it. “Falling” covers a four-day span of his life in which he: attends the funeral of a fellow videographer who was caught in gang crossfire, earns a huge paycheck by surreptitiously filming another gangland murder, and berates himself for not intervening to help the victim. That’s not even mentioning the tragic event that, as a flash-forward, is the first scene in the film.
These are times that would try any man’s soul. What compounds it for Eric is knowing that things could have been different for him if he had stayed on the path of his youth: “I’m not supposed to be like this,” he says simply. He was once a faithful religious man. Now, for reasons we don’t know (or perhaps for no single reason at all), he has slipped away from his faith. Did he find his religion incompatible with his bottom-feeding livelihood and abandon it to make the job more tolerable? Even as he wistfully considers his former life and rues his current situation, he doesn’t seem eager to return to God, even though the unspoken truth is that it would probably help him. He has assembled all the puzzle pieces, yet remains unwilling to put that last key component in place.
It’s impossible not to think of Dutcher’s own story, widely discussed last year when a Utah newspaper published an editorial by him in which he said he had left the Mormon Church — not bitterly, or because he believes it to be false, but for personal spiritual reasons. He has said that the idea for “Falling” actually predates his other films, conceived back when he was in L.A. trying to become a filmmaker. But surely recent events have added some shades to the story; all of his films have been personal to some extent.
“Falling” is relentlessly bleak, a tragic, cautionary story in which a number of ugly things happen, and Jim Orr’s stark cinematography even makes L.A.’s sunny skies look desolate. The two lead performances are consistently good, even in uncomfortable moments; in Eric and Davey’s climactic argument, it’s some of the writing I don’t quite believe, not the acting. (No spoilers here, but the timing of some of the revelations feels suspect, as does Davey’s initial cheerfulness, given where she’s just been.)
The finale, brutally violent and almost just as brutally emotional, marks another milestone in Dutcher’s growth as a proficient filmmaker and film editor. Relying solely on images, with no words or music, Dutcher conveys this major point in Eric’s spiritual journey vividly, graphically, viscerally — you feel it as much as you see it. But is it the end of Eric’s journey, or a turning point leading him in a new direction? He’s losing the world; can he still gain his soul?
B+ (1 hr., 22 min.; )