Characters Without Complexity Hurt ‘The Fall of the American Empire’

by Jonah Desneux on July 14, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

The hybrid genre of the social problem crime film has always had a complicated history in cinema. Usually, the imbalance of tone leads to a cluttered plot and dramatic dialogue is force fed, hindering the impact of the film’s central message. Either, the crime aspects are too prominent, not allowing for enough depth for the social issue to be explored, or the elements of the social commentary overpower the thrills of the crime, weakening the purpose of the film.

In 1954, this balance was found perfectly with the iconic On the Waterfront. Since then, most have fallen flat in an attempt to capture the best of both worlds on the dramatic spectrum. (Yeah I’m looking at you Money Monster). Denys Arcand’s newest film, The Fall of the American Empire has its enjoyable moments and displays important societal issues, but unfortunately its imbalance in tone holds it back from being a great film.

The Fall of the American Empire follows the unfolding events of the socially awkward yet incredibly generous Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), who while making a delivery to a bank finds himself in the middle of a robbery gone with two big bags of money right in front of him. In a split decision, Pierre-Paul decides to take the money that was about to be stolen and spends the film being searched by the police and many of the criminals who want it for themselves. The only comfort he finds in this time is with Aspasie (Maripier Morin), a prostitute he hires and quickly falls in love with. 

The script and direction comes from Denys Arcand, who is known for his politically savvy films. The Fall of The American Empire comes 32 years after his first major success of similar themes and name, The Decline of the American Empire. In alluding back to the bold statement in both film’s titles alone, Arcand attempts to illustrate that issues that troubled society thirty plus years ago still need to be addressed. The social issue that underlines the crime in The Fall of the American Empire is homelessness. Through the plot and cinematography, Arcand argues the absurdity in crimes over money with the elite, when besides all the action there are individuals in dire situations that just want to be fed. The millions of stolen money doesn’t hold the same dramatic weight as the many individuals featured who have none at all.

Arcand’s efforts are earnest but get convoluted quickly with the structure of the film. While I especially liked when issues were addressed in subtle ways, like many establishing shots having a homeless individual featured in them, the black-and-white character motives don’t hold up in contemporary cinema. The “bad guys” were established as anyone with the sole purpose of finding money for themselves, while our heroes wanted to use the money for the greater good. Now while the essence of that sentiment isn’t inherently problematic, in having cut and dry character motives, the film muzzles most of the drama. The film also doesn’t have enough twists and turns to keep interest when the characters, as they are one-dimensional.

Pierre-Paul is like the Quebec Robin Hood but without the charm of the iconic character. At the beginning of the film, he was the most interesting character as you discovered why the took the money and what he was going to do with it. However, come the second act all mystery with his character and thought process is gone and he is stuck to the archetype of the morally sound savior. Risking his life for the greater good becomes his prerogative while quoting philosophical messages along the way. Alexandre Landry is impressive in his performance, but I became turned off by the character due to how hard the film was trying to make him likable. 

The lack of ambiguity is the root of the problems with the films tone. As a crime film, right out of the gate there is an introduction to many different captivating characters and paths for the plot to go down. This is immediately watered down due to the characters feeble obstacles and lack of depth in their motives. With the character’s motives being as straightforward as they are, the strengths of the crime film are never felt. 

The Fall of the American Empire has the originality and the tools to be a memorable crime film with a big impact with its social commentary, but fails to capitalize on exploring what makes both genres powerful. Instead of having an emotional response to the problems highlighted in the film, I instead had more of an appreciation for the clever ways that Arcand addressed it.

Instead of being on the edge of my seat following the suspense of the crime, I respected what the characters choose to do but was never gripped by what could happen to them. It would be hard for anyone to argue that there isn’t good intent in the film, but  the cookie-cutter nature of crucial elements make you think what could have been opposed to what actually was.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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