Readers of these pages are well aware of my unabashed endorsement of freewill; without it, we are simply links on a trillion-year chain gang. To those modern minds who cannot imagine anything past their backyard but worship distant stars more intimately than they love their fellow man, it seems inconceivable that there could exist a force that knows everything, discerns the result of every interaction from among the myriad possibilities, and yet allows us to make our own decisions. It is inconceivable because these minds continue to believe the human race has full control of its destiny. Yet a trillion years later, as we have evolved into sentient beings with the capacity for albeit very limited space travel, what do we know of our universe? What mysteries have been well and truly disposed of? What is the fate of man upon biological death? The breakthroughs of the last one hundred fifty years, beginning with this book, have surely enlightened us as to many quirks of mammalian and other species' development – yet they only show us a potential connection, not an alpha or omega. No more decisive is this hayrick of information than a slender eighth chapter of a book of thirty or forty chapters with no explanation of scene, character, motive or perspective. We are frozen looking at our past and convincing ourselves that our future is as clear and unadulterated as the preserved remains of former kings – lizard or mummy – when in fact we only make this connection because this is how we think. Proving that we were once amoebae seems perfectly logical given our microscopic humility in our mother's womb; looking upon every animal and seeing our own gestures, moods and processes makes sense because that is precisely how we project our desires onto each another; and dismissing the notion that something which did not think like we think could have possibly willed an order upon us is quite an insufferable premise for that supremely arrogant creation, modern man. Which brings us to the underlying concept behind this fine film.
We begin with a man (Denzel Washington) almost on all fours lurching in pain through a remote wooded area. As he scrounges and gasps for air, a voiceover explains that this "was the time I nearly died," and since Washington has one of the most recognizable voices in cinema, there is nothing out of place with such an introduction. We move on to a more typical opening shot for a police-based drama, that of an execution. The person on death row is the notorious serial killer Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas), and the gentleman who was strolling not so leisurely through the forest turns out to be a police officer by the name of John Hobbes. Hobbes and Reese have had a long cat-and-mouse history that needs no detailing; suffice it to say that through Reese's spree of terror, Hobbes was the innocent do-gooder whom Reese would hang up on at all hours of the night. With no hope of a stay from the governor, Reese patrols his cell with the psychopathic vigor so commonly incident to countless films about serial killers (an egregious cliché of which, I fear, the film industry will never quite rid itself). Reese talks his crazy talk, Hobbes remains perfectly cool and we see nothing bizarre in this exchange until Reese speaks in a guttural tongue that Hobbes reasonably assumes to be Hebrew. But Reese corrects him: he is speaking Dutch. If that were not sufficiently unusual, Reese then switches into another language which few could ever identify and breaks into this popular tune that will serve as a beacon throughout the film. Reese ultimately succumbs to the fumes of the hideous chamber, Hobbes looks on in disgust – perhaps at both the method and subject of the execution – and the first scene of our film comes to the end we know it cannot maintain. Indeed, the anonymous calls persist; more disturbing, however, is the fact that the killings continue to be carried out in Reese's peculiar style. Hobbes smartly intuits that since the calls had not been reported to the press, the informant must be an insider and the copycat killer must simply have purchased or blackmailed the right officer. Sniffing around for the culprit brings Hobbes to a missing plaque for an officer of the year award, an oddity clarified by a story about another policeman who died about thirty years ago after a dishonorable discharge. His daughter Gretta Milano (Embeth Davidtz) is now a theologian living alone and no longer in search of answers regarding her father's death, which she categorically refuses to discuss with a curious Hobbes. So when Gretta asks him what his religious views are, to which he replies that he is neither an agnostic nor a churchgoer, her subsequent reaction does not betray whether such information will help or hurt his case.
What I have casually omitted are a host of other details that suggest something rather despicable afoot, although it is perhaps more amusing to consider some of the reviews of Fallen. Despite a gaggle of supporters, the predominant opinion on the answers provided by the story's gradual unfurling is one of incredulous frustration. How could Hobbes, a man devoted to forensic science, begin to believe that something outside of man's knowledge of the world might be committing these crimes? How could anyone in his right and rational mind possibly be entertained by a slow-paced, non-action-oriented film whose main character never appears on screen? What could possess a number of cast members to take turns singing the same song, suddenly become left-handed, and cackle sadistically at some unsaid joke? Given the paucity of evidence in Hobbes's hands, there are only a few conclusions to be drawn, one of which involves his own mental equilibrium. The original Hobbes was a pessimist who had nothing nice to say about humanity's destiny; our Hobbes is not built the same way. He believes, for better or worse, that people are inherently good. Now that's a novel concept.