Fall Review: This Nail-Biting Survival Thriller Is Surprisingly Effective, If Not Entirely Convincing

The one-location thriller is a tough nut to crack. When you trap your characters in one spot, you run the risk of the narrative growing stale and the pacing floundering. So how do you mix it up? You keep the audience (and the characters) on edge; you throw obstacles in the way, with things going from bad to worse to catastrophic. And you make us care about what happens to the trapped characters. "Fall" is a new entry in the one-location survivalist thriller, and it plays out a bit like "The Shallows" without a shark, and a bit like "The Descent" without underground cave monsters. And you know what? It's surprisingly fun — in a silly but nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat kind of way. Directed by Scott Mann, "Fall" makes great use of its location, even if it doesn't always convince us of its reality. An occasional bad bit of CGI gets in the way and keeps "Fall" from being a complete success, but when this movie works, it works well. 

After an opening tragedy featuring some of that shoddy digital work (it involves dangerous mountain climbing), Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) enters a mourning period that lasts for almost an entire year. She drinks to excess, she turns away from the world, and she brushes off her loving dad (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Then Becky's friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) shows up and proposes they go on an adventure — one that will hopefully help shake Becky out of her gloom. The adventure: climbing a remote radio tower that looms over 2000 feet (taller than the Eifler Tower, and, according to Hunter, the fourth highest structure in the U.S.). 

Is the tower rickety and falling apart? Oh yeah. Is it in the middle of nowhere? Of course! So, uh, what could go wrong? 

'What the hell are we doing?'

Becky is understandably hesitant to go along with the plan. But eventually, she gives in and the duo heads for the tower, with Hunter filming the journey for her Instagram page. The climb up is intense, but the pair eventually makes it — although, at one point during the climb, Becky rightly asks, "What the hell are we doing?" Good question, Becky! Having never had any interest in climbing anything (not even a tree), I can't say any of this makes sense to me. But I also know real people go out there and risk their lives for these sorts of sporting activities (see "Free Solo" for example). But even if you're into climbing, Mann does a splendid job making the journey seem genuinely insane. The ground below feels impossibly far away, and the tower is so narrow and unstable. 

Occasionally, the cinematography can't match the thrills — lots of scenes featuring the sky taking up much of the screen are an ugly faded blue with nothing to draw the eye, which robs a lot of shots of perspective. But there are also plenty of moments where we believe that these two characters are really climbing this gargantuan, deadly structure. It's to the credit of Currey and Gardner, who find little ways to make their characters likable and relatable and, well, terrified, that we can ultimately buy into this entire facade. Currey leans into Becky's uncertainty while Gardner plays up Hunter's bravado, which starts to crumble when things grow hazardous. 

Needless to say, things don't end up going very well for our heroines. A series of terrifying misfortunes strands them on the top of the tower, thousands of feet in the air, on a platform that Becky describes as being the size of a pizza box. Does either of the women's phones work? No, of course not! There's no signal up there! (Although, and I guess this is me admitting I don't know a damn thing about how the real world works, but wouldn't being up high improve your signal?) Is there anyone around to see or rescue them? Nope! So how the hell are they going to get down? They can't just stay up there forever. 

Don't look down

In order to survive, Becky and Hunter have to get creative. Time and time again, they think up MacGyver-like plans to save themselves, and time and time again, something goes wrong and puts their lives in danger. That's not to say "Fall" is repetitive — it finds clever ways to change things up, and while some of the backdrop footage looks off, Mann has a knack for staging intense, immersive moments, like a scene that's lit only by a flashing red light that's on the top of the tower. The script, by Mann and Jonathan Frank, is also loaded with Chekhov's Gun-like teases of ideas and items that are introduced early only to show up again later. 

Unfortunately, there are times when that same script can't get out of its own way. Some plot twists present themselves in clunky fashion, and while one such twist ramps up the tension a bit, another feels utterly pointless and kind of silly in its execution. And yet ... I cannot deny I had a blast watching "Fall," and came out of the movie satisfied despite those occasional missteps. I entered this worried it was going to be little more than cheap schlock, and what I got was a breezy, scary, entertaining thriller. 

"Fall" doesn't break the mold, and there are a wealth of one-location thrillers that are much better than this. But when you're climbing that tower with Becky and Hunter, you can't help but follow along, nervous, but still exhilarated by the journey. Watching "Fall" on a big screen and experiencing the nerve-shredding vertigo that comes from the proceedings is the kind of pulpy fun that memorable late-summer movies are made of. 

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10