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Fall

Year: 2022
Production Co: Capstone Global
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Scott Mann
Writer: Scott Mann/Jonathan Frank
Cast: Grace Caroline Surrey, Virginia Gardner, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

You've seen dozens of thrillers with no thrills and you've also seen dozens of 'trapped' thrillers that either run out of ideas too quickly or fumble the balance between scares and character. But I'm still struggling to remember a time when I've seen all the above done with as much finesse as this.

All the elements you hope for – genuine human interest thanks to just the right amount of character work, heart-in-throat frights and a buttock-clenchingly emotional investment that you just want them to get out of the situation they're in – aren't just there and aren't just expertly realised in their own right, they all subtly and seamlessly adhere to every other element.

Screenwriter Jonathan Frank and director/co-writer Scott Mann also understand the imperative in drama (especially thrillers) of treating your characters terribly and putting them in the worst possible circumstances.

Every time salvation seems in reach, only to be snatched heartbreakingly away at the last instant, you wonder how much worse things can get for Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and Hunter (Virginia Gardner). Rest assured they do, and not only that, the story still never breaks the banks of its own credulity, never letting one more terrible failure feel contrived or like it doesn't belong.

Whether it's the car thieves, the drone or the twist that sets the final act in motion, you'll respond with a lurch, gasp or horrified slump of your shoulders you barely notice.

I admit part of my reaction to it might have been the specifics of the premise (ie heights). After I watched Open Water, despite knowing what an effective horror movie it was, I knew I'd never be able to bring myself to watch it again and relive what the lead couple goes through.

And the same goes for Becky and Hunter. As they climb a disused, 2,000 foot tall radio tower and the surrounding desert looks more like a giant postcard someone's holding up below them, the view become less real and more terrifying with every step.

Knowing the premise of the story, I had to hold myself back from yelling at the screen for them not to start the climb. I would have been relieved if they'd changed their minds, gone home and the movie had ended after 20 minutes, nonsensical as that is (and so deep was my investment from the beginning because of how I am with heights and knowing what was going to happen to them).

The two friends are there because Hunter, an adventure-loving party girl, has convinced Becky the climb will bring her back to life. We've already seen in the opening scene how Becky lost her husband Dan to an accident while the three of them were attempting a climb together a year before.

Since then Becky has been a shut-in, ignoring the repeated overtures from her worried father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and barely responding to her best friend. It's only when Hunter shows up, virtually forcing Becky to accompany her, that she starts to believe Hunter's promise – conquer the climb and she'll conquer both her fears and the ghost of her husband she can't let go of.

If you've seen the trailer, you know what happens. The ladder for most of the climb is inside the frame of the structure, but during the final leg, where the ladder to the uppermost platform is outside – it comes loose, crumbling completely when the girls attempt to get back down.

It leaves them on a metal plate the size of a coffee table, a final central spire with the aircraft warning light about 20 feet up, a 200 foot vertical shaft down to the next stage with no ladder, and a 1,500-plus foot drop beyond that. When the girls quell their thundering hearts they realise the worst; they're trapped on top.

And so begins a tightly and brilliantly scripted odyssey of set pieces where they attempt to get back down or raise the alarm. It's too high for a mobile phone signal, so they try writing a text and dropping the phone off the edge in a shoe, hoping it survives the fall long enough to transmit.

Their bag has got caught on the radar dish array at the top of the last stage, 200 feet below. They have the rope they tethered themselves together with, which is (of course) not quite long enough. They have the small drone Hunter bought to help document their trip for her Instagram they can use to send for help, but of course it's out of charge (an earlier scene removing the light globe in a dusty diner to charge a phone provides an ominous foreshadowing).

Then there are the vultures whirling around, resulting in one nightmarish scene of the girls being buzzed like the heroines of a gothic Victorian ghost drama while cawing figures swoop at them out of the darkness. They try their hardest to get the attention of two guys walking a dog nearby. Cruelties both human and natural pile up one on top of the other and conspire to thwart every plan with deliciously wicked frustration.

And amidst it all, Becky learns more than she realised about her friend, her husband and even her Dad, giving the urgency of their plight extra dimension and deftly redrawing them as realistic characters whose situation you'll only feel more deeply about.

Ironically the twist is just like another one I've seen in a similar movie in this genre (which I won't name for fear of blowing it), but it was just as effective because it elicits a similar desire to put your head in your hands and repeat 'no, please, no', having to accept that things aren't only bad, they're a hundred times worse than you, Becky or Hunter thought.

I don't think I could have watched it on a big screen, although it would have been only more effective, and not just because of the brilliantly woozy cinematography, VFX and design that looks for all the world like two young woman trapped at the top of a 2,000 foot spire (a lot of it was actually shot on the fake uppermost section of a radio mast built on a mountaintop with clever use of camera angles).

It's because the script and direction get nerve-sawing tension and an unfathomable sense of doom not only just right, but better than I've seen in a thriller for years.

Brilliantly awful, and awfully brilliant.

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