Focus On: FALLEN (1998)

In our “Unheralded Scene” series, our consultants nominate a classic film or TV scene, which in their view hasn’t received the admiration it deserves. It might be a scene from a classic movie, which has been crowded out by other, more “showy” scenes and set-pieces. It might be a deleted scene which is outstanding in its own right but wasn’t quite in-sync or critical to the final cut of the film.

***Warning: plot spoilers below***

Supernatural Horror-Thriller FALLEN has an immensely potent premise, a strong central performance from Denzel Washington, engaging supporting turns and wonderfully clever bookending scenes. But above all of that, it’s the quality of the writing throughout which marks-out the film as one worth revisiting (or watching at all if you missed it first time around).

Nicholas Kazan’s script is beautifully multi-layered, with every scene performing multiple functions. Every moment is rich in tone, theme and foreshadowing; every line of dialogue thrums with subtext.

 

FORESHADOWING & SUBTEXT

After the wonderfully intriguing opening scene, in which we see Hobbes (Denzel Washington) scrabbling desperately through the snow while his Voice Over tells us about the time he “almost died”, the plot proper starts with the execution of Reese (Elias Koteas). The early scenes at the prison are very deliberately portrayed as the end of a case. Hobbes has caught his man, who is now being executed. Justice is being served.

 

Nicholas Kazan’s script is beautifully multi-layered, with every scene performing multiple functions.

 

But as suggested by the camera moves, it looks very much like something has left Reese and entered the body of a prison guard. So this is probably also the start of something.

None of those scenes is our unheralded scene. Rather it’s the following 3-minute scene, in which three cops share a celebratory beer. Sounds like a linking scene, doesn’t it? A bit of character interplay. Something light to balance the intrigue, violence and suspense of the opening scenes.

Well yes – it does achieve all those things. However, what it also does is brilliantly set-up all three characters, create misdirection, provide a telling moment of suspense and tell us pretty-much everything we need to know about Hobbes, while foreshadow everything that will happen to him.

We’re in a cop bar. The TV is tuned to the news – which is reporting on the execution of Reese as if it’s definitive. We already suspect that it’s not definitive at all, even though Hobbes, along with everyone else, sees no reason to imagine otherwise, even though before his execution, Reese has specifically warned Hobbes:

 

REESE: …a day… a week… a month… What goes around, really goes around. I’ll be looking for you.

 

CONSEQUENCES

On the bar’s television screen, Hobbes is on the news from an interview recorded earlier outside the prison.

 

HOBBES: So criminals don’t accept consequences? Huh? They kill somebody, somehow it’s not their fault? Well this is the consequence of what I did…

 

Even this seemingly throw-away line has subtext, for if Reese was indeed somehow possessed when he killed, is he in fact responsible for is actions at all? Even if he’s a stone-cold killer without a demon inside him, if he’s harbouring a fallen angel, can he be held accountable for anything he does? Was his execution just? Was Hobbes arrest of him valid at all?

 

…none of the philosophical ideas of Hobbes’s namesake count for anything when a cop is confronted by supernatural evil…

 

A caption on the news confirms Hobbes’ rank, his full name and its spelling (just in case we were in any doubt): Det. John Hobbes. Hobbes’s name is neatly allusive, for although a modern American cop is a perfect example of the maintenance of a social contract under laws as defined by representatives of the people.

None of the philosophical ideas of Hobbes’s namesake count for anything when a cop is confronted by supernatural evil – an evil that is uncontained, living beyond the boundaries of any single body.  It’s therefore impervious to imprisonment and, so far at least, immune to death.

Hobbes is welcomed by Lou (James Gandolfini) and Jonesy (John Goodman). Lou calls Hobbes “Mr. Consequence” – a description that is both funny and will later prove itself to be hugely apt.

Jonesy asks Hobbes how it went? “He died,” replies Hobbes matter-of-factly. “Told you!” jokes Jonesy. This is subtext to die for, because although Reese may have died, whatever was inside him did not. And although we know this, Hobbes does not – a highly-effective use of dramatic irony.

 

IT’S JUST A BUD, OK?

Jonesy light a cigarette. “Don’t tempt me with that man…” says Hobbes as he waves the smoke from Jonesy’s cigarette towards himself and inhales it, a lovely beat that tells us that Hobbes may have given-up smoking, but he still misses it.

Even this simple moment has thematic subtext – for although Hobbes is a righteous man who is able to exercise self-discipline, he is also human, which means he is weak. He may be able to quit cigarettes, but he can never fully be free of them, in the same way that no human can ever be completely free of vice. Which in turn means that Azazel can get to everyone eventually, given enough time.

 

…although Hobbes is a righteous man who is able to exercise self-discipline, he is also human, which means he is weak.

 

Hobbes greets the waitress by name – he’s a nice guy. As he takes a seat, Lou offers Hobbes a drink: “So what’s your poison, Hobbes? We’re working on some Becks, we got some Guinness, we got some Bass…”. Combined with the reference to smoking, the mention of poison here is direct foreshadowing of a climactic scene in which cigarettes, quite literally, kill.

Hobbes wants a simple Budweiser, but Lou is insistent. He wants Hobbes to have a fancy beer, he grabs the waitress’s hand – intent on not releasing her till Hobbes acquiesces. But Hobbes stands firm. Annoyed, the waitress pulls away, “it’s just a Bud, ok?”

 

CREAM, OR NO?

Even this argument over beer has multiple layers. First it provides the scene’s initial conflict. Next it shows Lou as a bully and Hobbes as both steadfast and all-American. However at the deepest level there’s a sense in which everyone will need to look beyond the obvious, the rational, the honestly ordinary if they’re going to stand any chance at all of defeating the thing that’s coming for them.

Then bouncing back up another level, the exchange suggests that Lou is not to be trusted because his preference is very clearly not for a plain Bud. Lou’s insistence that “We’re going imported here…” carries the subtext both of an ”old-world” demon loose in America’s “New World” and the fact that the demon, when it possesses it’s host, is literally “an import”.

 

LOU: You’re an unusual cop, Hobbes. You know, I’ve been in this precinct about what, five, six months? Everybody says, ‘Hobbes don’t take no cream. Hobbes don’t take no cream.’ Now, is that true, or what?

 

There follows a tense exchange in which Hobbes explains that although he doesn’t like “cream” himself, he would never judge a cop who does, because even a corrupt cop does more good than the average citizen.

Lou sarcastically calls Hobbes, “…a fucking saint, huh? …a holy man…” Who better to do battle with a demon than a saint, a holy man? Of course, Hobbes is not a saint or a holy man, so more foreshadowing: Hobbes is doomed before he even knows what he’s fighting. Even the word “cream” is pitch-perfect (and slyly funny, with it) because the story’s eventual last-character-standing will have indeed proverbially “got the cream”.

Hobbes zeroes-in on Lou:

 

HOBBES: I could jump across the table, right, snatch your heart right out of your chest with my bare hand. Squeeze the blood out of it and stick it in your front pocket. I could do that. If I lost control. But if I did, I would be no different than the people we bust.

 

This exceptionally violent image does several things: it reinforces genre; the film’s splicing of Supernatural Horror with Thriller. It tells us to what extremes Hobbes can imagine going, even if he knows that acting in this way is the behaviour of a criminal. And, we suspect, he’s probably going to need to push himself to this limit and beyond.

These lines also have some extremely clever subtextual foreshadowing: Hobbes’s antagonist is a demon, so there is no physical monster from which Hobbes can pluck the heart, even if he wanted to. Simple violence isn’t going to vanquish this particular foe, however willing Hobbes is to get his hands bloody. He is going to need guile. And luck (the film’s very first shot of Hobbes is of his hand, flipping a coin between his fingers and thumb).

Our engagement with Hobbes is deepening further still. Although he’s a righteous man, according to his personal morality he can accept corruption in a cop because “he or she, cream or no, is doing more good out there on the street every day than any lawyer or stockbroker or Present of The United States can ever do in their lifetime.”

This opens-up some interesting moral questions.

 

HOBBES: Cops are the chosen people.

JONESY: Amen.

 

The mythic and religious subtext of this call and response fits perfectly within a story in which the hero is going to battle a fallen angel, raising Hobbes from cop to the level of warrior knight.

 

Simple violence isn’t going to vanquish this particular foe, however willing Hobbes is to get his hands bloody.

 

There’s a moment of tension between Lou and Hobbes – a perfect climax to a scene from a thriller – then the moment is diffused when Lou says “Guess I’m switching to Bud!” and they all laugh, releasing the tension between the three cops, allowing us to take a breath and ensuring that we know the story is going to be told with humour.

In plot terms, this whole exchange also sets-up Hobbes’s later inability to trust the right person (remember that this scene has portrayed Lou as pretty much corrupt by his own admission, while Jonesy is shown as loyal to Hobbes).

 

HUMOUR, SUSPENSE, ENGAGEMENT

So this 3-minute scene has moved the plot forward, provided humour, suspense and foreshadowing and also given us multiple layers of subtext. It’s deepened our engagement with Hobbes. It’s set-up Jonesy and Lou along with the dynamics between the three cops.

It’s also reinforced that Hobbes is a warrior, a knight, the sword of justice. There’s no way a fallen angel is going to possess him when he’s at full strength, thus explaining why Azazel couldn’t simply hop straight from Reese to Hobbes (quite apart from the fact that this particular demon is as much trickster – check-out the riddle posed to Hobbes by Reese – as it is non-corporeal killer, so wants to have as much fun as possible along the way).

 

We also know that it’s going to take someone, or something unique to get the better of Hobbes.

 

Along with Lt. Stanton (Donald Sutherland), on whose face the camera lingered for perhaps just a moment too long outside the prison, we now mistrust Lou but are sure that Jonesy will always have Hobbes’s back. We also know that it’s going to take someone, or something unique to get the better of Hobbes. And, of course, that’s exactly what he’s up against…

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Unheralded Scene: FALLEN (1998)
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