'Seraphim Falls': Myth in the Western Canon

Dennis Harvey February 6, 2007

One of the reasons the movie medium immediately became popular is because it afforded everyone an opportunity to see remote and exotic places they might never experience otherwise. That’s got to partly explain the appeal of Westerns, too — more people enjoy those wide open spaces and rugged terrain while seated comfortably in a theater than would actually want to, y’know, rough it in the brush.

Me, I actually do like that stuff, albeit via backpacking rather than cowboy-style on horseback. But I also like seeing the same mountain, desert, et al. landscapes in Westerns — because, well, they’re pretty. And violent conflict in beautiful surroundings…hey, that’s entertainment!

A progression of landscapes is so central to the new western “Seraphim Falls” that you might well wonder if the script was developed around the location scouting, rather than the other way around. Shot primarily in New Mexico (standing in for Northern Nevada), plus a bit in Oregon, it’s a story that starts in the extreme winter of high mountains and ends in the purgatorial heat of summertime desert salt flats. Thus nature as well as guns and other manmade perils get plenty of chances to threaten human life en route.

The reason for this epic, hardly recreational trek is a relentless thirst for blood vengeance by Carver (Liam Neeson) from his quarry Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). Just what Gideon did to merit such committed hatred is revealed only in “Seraphim’s” last half-hour. But it’s clearly something major, and very personal — Carver doesn’t waver for a moment from his purpose, even as the fugitive self-defensively picks off his hired posse of five one by one.

All this taking place just after the Civil War, mod cons are not exactly plentiful west of the Mississippi. Lack of food, water, horse, warmth, and weaponry can happen easily and fatally. In the film’s first 20 minutes alone, Brosnan gasps and squirms through all the physical punishment he’d doled out (or nonchalantly endured) as James Bond: He’s shot, falls off a mountain into freezing rapids, then over a waterfall; has to perform self-surgery with a very big knife, then uses said knife to do very bad things to one bounty hunter who’d‘ve gladly done him ill instead. And that’s just the beginning of the perils to befall him.

Brosnan seems to relish (as in last year’s terrific, overlooked “The Matador”) such opportunities to masochistically de-bunk his suave Bond image. By contrast, the normally estimable Neeson just stands (or rides) around looking grim and determined.

But performance isn’t really the thing in “Seraphim Falls,” anyway. Nor is the violence, though it’s pretty grisly — one particularly nasty idea finds a whole new disgusting use for a horse carcass.

You get the feeling that David Von Acken, a TV director (“Cold Case,” “Oz,” etc.) making his first feature, and co-scenarist Abby Everett Jaques is really about Myth. As the movie goes on — and on and on — it grows more affectedly mythic, in a sort of Old Testament-meets-Sergio Leone way. Characters start showing up who are all too symbolic. The last and worst is one played by Angelica Huston that can only be described as a yakkety hallucination (or as, groan, the Angel of Death). There does come a point when you find yourself thinking “Just kill each other so we can go home.”

Best to ignore “Seraphim Falls’” pretentious streak and enjoy it as a stunning if brutal backcountry travelogue. The film’s press notes make a great deal out of the fact that it’s photographed by the Oscar-winning John Toll, who seems to specialize in outdoorsy epics (“Braveheart,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Last Samurai,” etc.).

CGI monsters and alien worlds are all very nice. But Toll’s spectacular widescreen work here reminds that Nature came up with better FX a long, long time ago.