If any recent film was going to put some some lead back into the pistol of the aging and impotent Western genre, it would probably have been the gritty, face-in-the-dirt Aussie jawbreaker, The Proposition, but box office bounty and mainstream critical recognition somehow slipped the noose. Expect no better results from this week's Seraphim Falls, a film that simultaneously sports an impressive cast that has the clear intention of doing good work and also skirts dangerously close to being a classic 'January dump' -- a film rushed into theaters at a time scientifically calculated to cause the least embarrassment to the studio. How does it achieve this double act? Here's a hint -- you won't find out as long as you leave after the first hour and a half, or so. A quiet, bitter chase film set among the ruins of the Civil War -- Eastwood's superior The Outlaw Josey Wales was an obvious influence -- Seraphim Falls eventually takes a wild, up-on-two-wheels turn into allegory and near-camp in the third act, finishing up as something almost 'Twilight Zone'-like.
It's frankly incredible that Seraphim, from first-timer David Von Ancken, was given the greenlight as a Western, when you consider that its proto-simple story, about one man wordlessly chasing another through the wilderness, could easily have been put through sausage machine and come out the other side as a horror story, or a mob story, or a police procedural. Liam Neeson plays a pursuer who ultimately fails to live up to his sinister name, Carver, and Pierce Brosnan, sporting a scraggly beard that's more beatnik than Bond, plays Gideon, a Union captain who must have done something pretty awful to deserve being chased through the high peaks and low desert of New Mexico by Neeson's character. Despite being explicitly set in the aftermath of the war between North and South, the film is oddly agnostic when it comes to context -- there's almost never a moment when the director impresses us with a thought or a visual idea about that war. John Toll's cinematography is beautiful, as always, but it's so divorced of context that it's only travelogue-beautiful.
Not knowing anything about the geography or climate of New Mexico, where the film is set, I still feel compelled to offer a layman's observation about one of the film's ongoing plot-lines -- the notion that deadly cold weather nearly overtakes Gideon in every early scene, until he barely find the strength in his fingers to strike a match and start a fire. It seems geographically bizarre, since this is New Mexico we're talking about. Does New Mexico really get Jack London-cold, even in the mountainous areas? It's New Mexico, not New Russia. On some level, the job of a director is to anticipate what might strike a dummy like me as out of place in a film, so that's another mark against him. Once Gideon becomes aware of the party chasing him through the snow, he begins to rally and starts picking off Carver's henchmen, one at a time, and shows remarkable killing ability, at one point fastening a whip-around impalement-contraption out of a tree branch and a piece of nail-studded board.
It's when the lone Carver, having been rid of all the members of his posse, finally catches up with Gideon that things start to go kablooey. Now tracking each other on the flat desert plain without so much as a telegraph pole in sight, the two men enter a metaphorical fantasy where, out of nowhere, a lone woman offering medicinal 'tonic' drives her wagon up to each man and offers them a strange, devil's bargain that will help them in their quest to kill the other. One has a gun, but no bullets, which she can provide for a price, and so on. This woman, played with a strange affect by Angelica Huston, is clearly intended to have not-of-this-world qualities, but how her character ended up in this film is something only the director could answer. In interviews, the cast members have referenced inspirations as out-there as Ambrose Bierce's 'turns out I'm already dead' short story Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, which may explain the yen someone had to lay on the allegory pretty thick.
The film should be most attractive to those who long to see Liam Neeson take on more action-heavy parts, which he rarely does but is very good at. His tall, angry gunman is the best thing about the film, and he rarely puts down a wrong note until the entire film goes off the rails, taking him with it. Although his character's villainy is somewhat dialed down and more reserved than the script seems to demand, Neeson has one scene in a settler's cabin, confronting some children who he thinks may have information he needs, that reminds us how apt he is to give every director he works with their money's worth. Seraphim Falls won't do anything to bolster the reputation of the Western in today's climate, but if you're a fan of the genre and you have a free Saturday afternoon, and you're just dying to see this third-act from Mars that I'm still having nightmares about, then you could do worse than to put down your two-bits and give the film a shot.