Thursday, February 01, 2007

FILM: "Seraphim Falls"

Seraphim Falls is a tried and true Western; unfortunately, that just means it's like all the others before it. HBO's Deadwood managed to revitalize the genre by keeping the camera on those emotionally distant gunmen after the big showdown, and more experimental films, like John Hillcoat's The Proposition, were visually giddy love ballads to a dusty yet far-from-dry time. David Von Ancken's film is neither: though it opens with great cinematography, panning from tight, frigid snow-capped mountain passes to the wide golden valleys and sleeping desert plains, the dialog and pacing make it feel more and more like an old-fashioned revival of The Fugitive, complete with long odds, desperate chases, interfering convicts, a relentless pursuer...even a waterfall plummet.

This is fine for Hollywood, I guess, but Von Ancken's got an independent twist on his mind: the third act adds an Indian straight out of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and a couple of mirages so gratuitous, it hardly matters they're played by Anjelica Huston. All this just to portray one of the most classic cinematic ideals: two men chasing each other across a vast landscape, washed so much into the land that you can hardly tell who is the pursuer and who is the pursued. If it weren't so cliche, he might even get away with it.

Worse still is that Von Ancken explains more and more of his film as it goes along. As a survivalist film, with Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) narrowly escaping an ambush by Carver (Liam Neeson), Seraphim Falls is gripping. Brosnan wins us over with his fiery determination to escape, and he gains our sympathy when he first digs a bullet out of his shoulder and then cauterizes the wound with a burning knife. From there, he pulls a lethal MacGyver, improvising traps to whittle down Carver's numbers, all the while staggering through oppressively thick blankets of snow. But after this, the film starts throwing in anecdotal scenes stolen from other Westerns, such as an incident with some missionaries and a slave-gang railroad encampment, and it's not clear if Von Ancken's wants to give a general history of post-Civil War America or if he wants to go with the morals of atonement and revenge he started with.

In the middle of the inevitable showdown, Von Ancken is suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to explain the backstory; what he conjures up is nowhere near as powerful as the audience already believes has transpired between these two opposing soldiers. All this exposition also interrupts the climax, and by the time the action picks up again, the film is riddled with overbearing orchestration, foreshadowing omens, and endless repetition.

Seraphim Falls owes what little success it has to the star talent of Brosnan (his co-star is too busy trying to be an emotionless savage). When the film focuses on his escape and personal atonement for an unknown crime, it shines; every time it dips into the traditional vigilante double-crosses, it goes cold. The ending is both contrived and a departure from the mysterious realism that made it so exciting to begin with; the final product is a joke of a Western, like the movie that Sam Shepard's seminal brothers wind up writing in True West. And really, unless it's Blazing Saddles, who goes to see a Western for laughs?

[First posted to Gather, on 1/31]

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