In Saar Klein’s After the Fall, the American Dream is not just dead, it’s been disemboweled.
The story follows a down on his luck family man named Bill Scanlon (Wes Bentley), who takes to stealing after losing his job. The first robbery happens by accident, when he wanders into a house still holding the gun with which he had been contemplating suicide, but other robberies follow and his behavior escalates. At his side, and on his heels, is a recently divorced friend, a detective investigating the robberies.
Set among the vacant houses of suburban New Mexico, the film offers a bleak perspective on the possibility of growth and renewal.
Veteran actor Jason Isaacs, who plays Detective Frank McTiernan, tells The Daily Beast any connection to the 2008 financial collapse was purely coincidental. “It wasn’t a story about the recession,” he says. “It exists outside the politics of the day. There are times when economies are booming, but people continue to fall through the cracks. It’s coming out now and it feels like it’s of that zeitgeist, but I think this is a timeless quality. This movie is like a cinematic poem.”
Isaacs recently returned from the New Mexico desert after shooting interior scenes for a new TV mini-series called Dig. The show started filming in Israel over the summer, but was forced to abandon the location as political tensions escalated. “We had to move to Croatia for exteriors, then Albuquerque, New Mexico [where After the Fall was filmed], for the interiors and some desert shots,” he says.
Isaacs may be most recognizable to American audiences for playing Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, however the actor is quick to refute any suggestion he frequently plays a villain.
“I’ve played about three or four villains out of forty or fifty roles,” Isaacs says. “I’ve mostly played someone trying to get it right and struggling. Sometimes they do heroic things, sometimes they wish they could. It doesn’t really matter what they do, it’s what they overcome that’s interesting.”
In After the Fall, the question is one of degrees. Although Isaacs’s police officer redeems his friend, his moral relativism inspires and enables Scanlon’s deepening criminality.
“[The film] doesn’t draw easy lines for the viewer,” Isaacs says. “In many ways, [Frank McTiernan is] a man who tests the main character’s soul. He’s an isolated cop, far from home in an unlikely friendship. We all experience trying to bring those feelings to life. When I play a villain, I always try to make sure they believe what they are doing is right. We want to make someone complicated and full of doubt. The shared humanity that make us unpredictable.”
The film does an excellent job of emphasizing the process of de-socialization Wes Bentley’s characters undergoes, and would need to cultivate, as his robberies escalate. Bill Scanlon almost apologizes for the first theft, and he can’t go through with another when an elderly man in a drug store sees him pull out a gun and has a heart attack.
Despite the detective’s relativistic morality, his character shows little confusion about how to reconcile the differences between its extremes. As the two men become friends over the film’s first half, McTiernan reveals little judgment against the people he investigates as a police officer. “He’s a damaged, nuanced, and fragile man,” Isaacs says. “[Their relationship] brings something adult out of them.”
Although After the Fall was filmed in the same New Mexico locations where Breaking Bad developed its signature look, Isaacs, a fan of the show, stresses their differences. “I was utterly addicted to Breaking Bad, watched [the whole series] in eight days. Breaking Bad was comic, brilliant. [After the Fall] is a more human and lyrical tale. It is extraordinary, much less overt entertainment. Less plot than character.”
First time director Saar Klein has spent much of his career as an editor, and the visual style of After the Fall evokes many of the directors with whom he has worked. “[Klein]’s consciously evoking Terrence Malick, Cameron Crowe. His powers are of a higher order,” Isaacs says. “I had no idea what the film would be like until I saw it. I was stunned by what he had done. It is unlike 99.9 percent of movies. It looks familiar, but it’s like a new dish from old ingredients. You get a sense by the tiniest thing, where small gestures mean so much.”
Isaacs grew up in Britain, first Liverpool, then London, during a period of economic turmoil and conservative revival. “There was a time when I was a teenager,” he says. “There was a very big Right Wing movement. If you were a minority, you knew it. Skinheads, youth clubs, being in the wrong place. Being chased around, standing up for yourself, and the ugliness that comes with that.”
And the actor says his childhood experience plays a critical role in his performance. “It’s one of the reasons I acted. It’s part of what has always piqued my curiosity: What makes people love? Or hate? What drives people? And it’s clear that those childlike instincts never leave anybody, we just learn to hide them.”
Instinct is on full display in Klein’s Albuquerque, where people continue to act in self destructive ways almost out of habit. The family’s pool features in several scenes, at first filling with algae, then burning any who enter as more and more chemical chlorine is added to keep the water clean.
It is hard then not to view the grim outlook of After the Fall in the tradition of 1970s exploitation films like Joe and Death Wish in which a white protagonist breaks the law to preserve his family’s stability at the expense of a perceived “other.”
As bleak as After the Fall looks, the city of Albuquerque, where much of the film was shot, continues to grow at a rate of about 1-2 percent per year. Albuquerque Economic Development, a private non-profit, estimates the five year growth rate at almost double the U.S. in general. Much growth has been in the city (and state’s) Latino community, which surpassed the state’s white population sometime between the 2000 and 2010 census.
As the white families who stole the land from its indigenous inhabitants fail to maintain the systems by which they once achieved dominance, like Bill Scanlon and Frank McTiernan’s in After The Fall, Latino families are saving the city.