Seraphim FallsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/26/07 01:05:47
The first half of the new Western “Seraphim Falls” is such an impressive stretch of filmmaking that while I was watching it, I began wondering why such an exciting work was being dumped in the cinematic Island of Misfit Movies that is January. After all, it contains some thrilling action set-pieces, strong, sure performances from leads Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan and a lean and effective narrative style that plunges viewers directly into the action while maintaining a certain amount of tension and suspense regarding the characters and their motivations. Unfortunately, it also contains a final half-hour or so that is such a mess of quasi-mystical symbolism and windy plot explanations that it essentially undoes all of the good work that it achieved in those earlier scenes.Set in 1868, the film opens in the Rocky Mountains as a man that we will come to know as Gideon (Brosnan) is out hunting in the wild. Suddenly and without warning, he is ambushed by a group of men led by Carver (Liam Neeson) and wounded in the arm. Despite this injury, Gideon not only manages to both escape (via waterfall) and extricate the bullet in his shoulder (via means too icky to contemplate), he even manages to lure one of his pursuers into a deadly trap that provides him with a dry coat and a gun. Despite this, Carver wants Gideon taken alive (“Extremities only,” he warns his assistants) and will go to any lengths to pursue his quarry–when it appears that a small family may have aided Gideon, he casually promises to kill them all unless they give up the information he requires.
For most of the next hour, the film settles into a pattern in which Gideon flees the relentless pursuit of Carver and his men while using a series of ingenious traps in order to reduce their ranks (including a bear trap is retrofitted in an especially nasty manner.) At the same time, we are never given any information, other than a tantalizing hint or two, regarding the men or either their past histories or present circumstances. This is an interesting narrative gambit–especially at a time when Hollywood seems to be going out of its way to explain everything in minute detail so as not to confuse viewers–and screenwriters Abby Everett Jaques & David Von Ancken (the latter also makes his feature directorial debut) makes it pay off because we are constantly kept off-guard as to who these characters really are to such a degree that even the most alert viewers will be kept guessing as to what is coming up next.
At first, for example, we are completely in Gideon’s camp out of sympathy for what appears to be an unmotivated attack but as he begins picking off Carver’s men, he does it with such ruthless efficiency that we can’t completely dismiss the idea that there may be very good reasons for the pursuit. At the same time, Carver never comes across simply as a typical bad guy–he is more like the Tommy Lee Jones character in “The Fugitive” in the way that we know nothing about him other than his determination to do his job no matter what. Contributing mightily to this aura of mystery are the intriguingly ambiguous performances by Brosnan and Neeson that keep us guessing throughout.
At a certain point, however, the film decides to break the mysterious spell that it has woven by explaining in ponderous detail who Gideon and Carver are and the reasons behind the pursuit. This is a mistake because it not only drags the forward momentum of the story to a halt for an extended flashback, all of the beautiful ambiguity that has developed around the characters is lost in a mass of exposition that essentially tells us who is the good guy and the bad guy. (To be fair, it isn’t that cut-and-dried but it is close enough to make a difference.) To make matters worse, the film takes a bewildering turn to the mystical with the late inning introduction of a philosophical Indian and a flirty patent medicine dealer (Anjelica Huston) who serve to guide Carver and Gideon to a final showdown in the desert that is so choked with symbolism that you want to give the film the Heimlich maneuver.
I know that I am probably not supposed to be taken these scenes on a literal level and that Jaques & Ancken are going for the kind of self-conscious meta-movie effect that filmmakers in this genre sometimes use to demonstrate that they are making something other than an old-fashioned western. The problem is that until this point, “Seraphim Falls” has been an old-fashioned western–and an uncommonly good one at that–and these final scenes co-exist so uneasily with the earlier ones that you can literally feel your early enthusiasm fade away as they unfold. I don’t know whether this shift in tone was always a part of the story or if the filmmakers just lost their nerve at a certain point but it is unlikely that anyone with a rooting interest in the film based on the first hour is likely to be even remotely satisfied by how it concludes.There is unquestionably a lot to like about “Seraphim Falls”–the blend of narrative ambiguity, visceral energy and formal beauty at times suggests the work of no less a master of the genre than Sam Peckinpah–but the final scenes are such a wonky and pretentious mess that I can’t quite find my way to offer an overall recommendation. Maybe if it hadn’t of done such a good job of creating such an aura of mystery in its first half, I wouldn’t have been so bummed by the way it systematically destroys that mystery in the second. Alas, it does and as I watched the film slowly deflate before my eyes, it reminded me of the story of the little boy who decided to cut his snare drum open in order to find out where the noise came from–in both cases, the answers do eventually arrive but the overall price is so high that it hardly seems worth it in the end.
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