One glance at the poster for After the Fall and you should expect a low-rent, straight-to-DVD revenge thriller starring Wes Bentley. The American Beauty actor stands menacingly in front of a giant backdrop of the American flag, a scar blistering from his left cheek. He is also wearing a suit and holding a gun. However, the debut film from Israeli writer/director Saar Klein is actually a low-key family drama about a father trying his best to hide his lies and life of petty crime from his wife and kids. The film deals with a protagonist as fraudulent as that one-sheet.
Bentley stars as Bill Scanlon, an insurance man who was recently fired from his job. Instead of telling his wife, Susan (Vinessa Shaw), he keeps up a charade, explaining he is up for a promotion. In one of the film’s early scenes, he tells his eldest son, Henry (Billy Miles), to take responsibility for cheating on a test. “When we do something wrong, we own up to it,” Bill tells Henry. “That’s what you do when you’re a man.” Of course, the irony is thick, since Bill is far from owning up to his own shortcomings.
Now behind on paying the mortgage, Bill struggles to find a solution to his financial woes. Instead of steering down the path of the honest man the film initially presents – during a night of bowling with his buddies, he discounts a strike he bowls due to a foot fault – Bill transforms into a small time crook.
Bentley’s conflicted ex-insurance man also befriends a person who stands a good chance of becoming his foe, detective Frank McTiernan (Jason Isaacs). The role is a cliché: the washed-up man who drifted away from his family and now drinks his worries away. Frank is not a fully dimensional character, serving more as a reminder for Bill of what can happen if he strays from being a family man. The most inspired thing about Frank is his oddly lax attitude toward criminals.
The main problem is that the leading man is not much of a lit fuse, so when Bill reaches his lowest depths and is on the verge of exploding, the fire barely ignites. One can imagine what Jake Gyllenhaal, coming off the best year of his career playing off-kilter men in Nightcrawler and Enemy, would add to this morally conflicted character. Bentley’s performance is oddly blank: on a tight close-up on his face after a successful operation, he doesn’t register much in the way of recognizable emotion. Without an undercurrent of darkness, Bill’s shift to a life of robbery is sudden and unconvincing. Isaacs, on the other hand, is magnetic, giving more to the character than what exists on the page. He revels in his character’s dysfunction to the point that he almost swallows up Bentley’s presence.
Klein, making his debut here, gives special thanks in the end credits to Terrence Malick. (Klein edited both The Thin Red Line and The New World, gorgeously lensed films that, like After the Fall, also lose their momentum toward the end.) In his debut, the best parts are the quiet, evocative early moments with Bill and his family, scenes that owe a bit of their fluttery camerawork and wistful voice-over to Malick’s The Tree of Life.
These dreamy scenes, showing Bill’s sons splashing in the pool and playing on swings, feel natural and are lit with a hazy light, as if they are scraps of the protagonist’s memories. The camera dips above and below the water in the family pool, giving these moments a relaxed vibe. However, the actual dramatic scenes with Bill and his family are quite flat. Susan is little more than a nagging wife and lacks both an occupation and personality, while young son Teddy is such a champion of his father that he instantly forgives Bill for missing his baseball game.
As any student of Malick’s film school would insert in their debut, there is some very artfully placed but heavy-handed symbolism. (After the Fall also has a few odd creative choices – classical music, voice-over narration – that fit a Malick film more aptly than this one.) Klein and co-writer Joe Conway (Undertow) are satisfied with replacing Bill’s characterization with tired metaphors. As Bill ponders how to resurrect his career, his thinking intercuts with shots of a dog licking through garbage and sniffing the sand, creating an obvious parallel between the lower means of the animal and the ex-insurance man. The scene before he commits his first crime, Bill finds that dog whimpering in the desert surroundings by his house. The animal has his stomach cut open and is gasps away from death. Bill proceeds to shoot the dog and bury it, suggesting that he is about to hide away the person he used to be.
Meanwhile, Bill’s descent into crime is filled with a few too many lucky breaks. The woman he encounters in the first house he tries to rob will not call the police, since he catches her screwing around with a man who is not her husband. In a later scene where he holds up a convenience store, he manages to evade capture despite taking off his mask in a place filled with security cameras. The contrivances and conveniences add up; however, besides his downward-pointing moral compass, Bill sees very few setbacks.
And therein lies another major problem with After the Fall: Bill manages to avoid so many repercussions that he is rarely cornered into a suspenseful situation. Without much tension or conflict, the film fails to engage as it enters its final third, one that actually slows down the pace instead of accelerating forward.
Too patient and not daring enough, After The Fall fails to become either a compelling character study or an absorbing tale of amorality.