The Theory of Chaos

Friday, February 09, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls
: David Von Ancken
: David Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques
: Bruce Davey, David Flynn
: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Wincott, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, John Robinson, Kevin J. O’Connor, Tom Noonan, Anjelica Huston

Within the first five minutes of
Seraphim Falls, Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) has lost his food, his coat, his horse, and his rifle; also, he’s been shot and plunged over a waterfall in freezing mountain country. The story does not let up from there, and unfolds like a fusion of The Naked Prey and The Searchers set in the hard habitats Jack London and Louis L’Amour wrote about.

The plot is as simple as this – it’s out West, three years after the end of the Civil War; Gideon is running for his life, and Carver (Liam Neeson) is chasing him. Why this is we will find out in the course of the narrative, but in a story where good and evil are not as simple as we often wish them to be and everybody has a guilty conscience, it doesn’t matter so much as the reality of the chase. Carver will do whatever it takes to end it, Gideon will use all his wit and skill to extend it as long as possible. The chase defines their lives; takes them down snowy slopes, across grassy plains, and finally to a blasted salt flat that looks like the end of the Earth, where they meet a character who might just be the Devil. And if it isn’t the Devil, they know how to offer bargains that are just as insidious.

That’s the kind of movie this is – big, painterly, fearlessly symbolic. Not the sort of thing that’s in fashion these days, but co-writer/director David Von Ancken has a clear vision of what he’s trying to do and mounts it with mesmerizing confidence. Simple as its elements and broad as its ideas are, this is a beautiful movie to behold.

It’s a story built on elements of survival that do not need explaining. When it’s cold out, you must build a fire. When your horse is tired, it needs water. If men are shooting at you, you must take cover. Gideon is skilled at all this and more, he does what needs to be done unquestioningly, but not without suffering. A story like this needs its location, so when Pierce Brosnan the handsome Hollywood star strips his soaked clothing off and shivers, that breath vapor is real. Shot in Oregon and New Mexico by master cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, The Thin Red Line), it remembers that part of what made the Westerns of John Ford so mythic were that the sprawling vistas brought out the hardness in the actors’ faces.

Brosnan and Neeson are both Irish by birth and struggling a bit with accents here, but they are nonetheless proper men to feature in a story like this. They carry back story in the lines on their faces. There’s nothing extraneous about what they do, and yet they can project a soul even as they go about the savage things the chase demands of them.

The mission to stay alive involves a finely-manipulated inventory – Gideon gains a gun, he loses his money. He re-fills his canteen, he loses a horse. He finds many, many uses for a long hunting knife. And he refuses to be merely prey – he covers his tracks, sets traps, will strike ruthlessly if cornered. Carter has a posse of bounty hunters at his command led by the pragmatic Mr. Hicks (Michael Wincott), and the posse is thinning the more they underestimate Gideon’s resourcefulness. To see Gideon live to fight another day does not provoke cheers, and no more sympathy than the subconscious identification we make with the endangered, because we simply do not know well enough what sins are in his past. This purgatory could be of his own making, instead we feel a sort of hypnotized satisfaction, buying in to the eternal nature of the pursuit.

The chase crosses paths with settlers, missionaries, a railroad work camp, and each encounter seems further bent towards deepening the men’s obsessions. The countryside becomes more barren and lifeless to match the building existentialism, and you will find yourself, eventually, questioning if the movie has left the real living world behind. Again, not the sort of thing that’s very in fashion at the movies these days.

At nearly two hours in length, you might feel near the end as if Seraphim Falls has made its last possible lap, that its ingenuity at keeping Gideon close to the bare brink of death for so long has run out and the movie no longer knows what to do with itself. In a way, its design almost defies any thought of momentum to a satisfying conclusion. Either Carter will kill Gideon, Gideon will kill Carter, they’ll kill each other, or for some reason they’ll decide to stop. No matter which of those scenarios comes about, what’s actually left for them? Seraphim Falls is about people who have nothing left, but keep moving just the same, because even when the spirit is all but dead, our animal side knows how to act.


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