Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 03 June 2014
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Pitfall by Matt
The world of Pitfall is ugly, and the human saga that unfolds within it is equally ugly. Amid stark mountains of black coal and decrepit mining towns, traitors, backstabbers, and murderers carry out their soulless machinations. Coal mine company men exploit and kill to keep the unions in disarray, the unions quarrel amongst themselves and sacrifice their principles in the name of autonomy. For those in power, selfishness and greed are the order of the day, and for the workingman, a bitter life of endless toil is rewarded only with a bitter afterlife of endless torment. And yet, beneath the caustic social commentary that dominates the film lies an almost imperceptible championing of the incorruptibility of the human spirit, injecting this otherwise bleak forecast for humanity with a modicum of hope.
The story begins with a destitute coal miner defecting from his latest odd job, and, with his young son in tow, drifting to a new town in search of better work. Inexplicably, his new employer identifies him as a man earmarked for special treatment, and sends him off on a top-priority assignment in the country. Although at a loss to explain his good fortune, the miner accepts the post, attempting to convince himself and his son that the strange circumstances amount to nothing more than a bit of well-deserved luck. Upon reaching his destination, however, the man finds nothing but a ghost town. Shortly thereafter, and without ceremony, he is murdered.
As the attendant police investigation gets underway, we realize that the murder is but a footnote in a wider conflict between competing union factions and corrupt company men—a complex game of double-crossing and deceit that ultimately exposes all parties involved as grasping and ruthless. In the hands of these men, this world is not merely ugly, but doomed; a world in which a man can have more value dead than alive. As a former acquaintance of the murdered man divulges one evening after a hard day of labor, “I’d like to come back to earth as a demon. All is hell anyway, you might as well be on top.”
As if to confirm this gloomy, inhumane attitude that all states of being are indeed hell, director Hiroshi Teshigahara and screenwriter Kobo Abe (in this their first of four collaborations) continue the murdered miner’s story; bringing him back to earth, not as a demon, but as an ethereal extension of the simpering man he was in life. Instead of finding solace in death, he is compelled to haunt his earthly stomping grounds much as he did while alive; accomplishing little, hoping help will come along, with the added anguish of being forced to forever endure his last living state (if a man is hungry when he dies, he is hungry eternally).
The inclusion of such ghostly scenes hints at the wonderfully surreal touches and captivating existentialist themes (particularly the quest for self-knowledge and identity) that would come to define and inform the later collaborations of Teshigahara and Abe. However, where Woman in the Dunes and Face of Another revel in their bizarre narratives, and methodically expound their philosophies, Pitfall’s initially intriguing foray into the spirit realm is diluted by a quick return to the murder plot. Possessed of no otherworldly ambition other than to follow the police proceedings, and unravel the true motivations behind his killing, the miner serves as neither a vehicle for existentialist rumination nor an exemplar of a resolute man in search of understanding. Instead, he is nothing but a helpless shadow of the whining, cowering man he was in life, and as such proves an impossible character to identify with or care about.
Without a central, stabilizing player endowed with enough complexity and backbone to warrant our identification, or a philosophical quandary to ponder, we are left to flounder among terrible deeds and brutal people; cast adrift amidst the film’s untidy tangle of genres (including documentary-style social critique, murder-mystery police procedural, and ghost story). Thus, while the film is visually stunning - a study in black and white composition and creative camerawork - and a sobering indictment of callous humanity, we cannot help but look for something deeper, something transcendent of the base story, to associate with.
Astonishingly, amidst this seemingly inescapable and horrific landscape we find a glimmer of hope: the dead man’s son. Whether calmly examining his father’s corpse, studying the antics of a couple having sex, or wisely hiding in the presence of the murderer, he exudes a quiet confidence and genuine wonder that is notably absent in the main narrative players. Although he wanders in and out of the narrative, never speaks a word, and often disappears for long stretches, the deliberate care with which his brief scenes are crafted indicates his importance to the story. When we first meet him, for instance, he is passing time by molding the raw clay unearthed by his father’s mining into figures and objects we assume to be toys. Instead of slipping into selfish boredom, he enhances his situation, creating something beautiful out of something dirty.
And again, soon after his father is murdered, the boy employs his creativity and self-sufficiency to make the best of what little he is given. Spotting a toad in a shallow stream, he snatches it up, dashes it against the rocks, and strips off its skin. At first we imagine him a cruel little boy, torturing helpless creatures for entertainment. We soon realize, however, that the boy has not killed in vain, but plans to use the toad as bait to snare something larger to eat. Unlike his father, who bemoans his fate both in life and death, the boy does not complain, and does not ask for help. He simply does what he must to survive. As such, the boy serves as a much-needed counterweight against the gravity of the film’s damning social criticism.
As the film draws to a close, we watch as the boy scampers along a high mountain road, the only protagonist with the strength and courage to escape the deplorable coal town. Though such a scene may tempt us to believe in a brighter future, the grisly realities of this cinematic world suggest that whatever his destination, the boy will likely end up in a similar abyss of human depravity. And yet, there is hope. For we have confidence that the boy’s exposure to the harsh realities of life will steel him against succumbing to his shirking father’s fate, and that his resourceful soul will find a way to thrive. Though not immune to the horrors of the world, neither will they defeat him.