David Von Ancken
Seraphim Falls opens with a haggard, bearded Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) making a small fire in the middle of a snow-carpeted pine forest. A shot rings out: he stumbles backwards. A moment later he is up and running for his life, pursued by hawk-like Carver (Liam Neeson). So the chase begins – a chase that lasts the entire two-hour duration of the movie.
The films spares no time for things like characterisation and build-up, and to its credit the first hour is a very fine hunt indeed. A cat and mouse game played dramatic mountain landscapes, Gideon sets lethal traps as he fights to survive, while Carver pursues him without remorse for those who get in his way. Moments of pity are few and far between for both, and Neeson’s features in particular are as cold as the snow-covered slopes.
It’s an bold canvas for a first feature, and Ancken has assembled two strong leads to tell his tale. Brosnan and Neeson are both excellent, as always, mixing resolve with buried morality. But after seemingly-endless scenes of horse-riding the film starts to lose its nerve. Where Segio Leone would have been happy with whole hours without major incident, Ancken throws in one colourful episode after another until the film becomes a nightmare of American colonial stereotypes. Mormons, railroad workers, even bank robbers: it’s a po-faced O Brother Where Art Thou.
And worse still, a sequence of flashbacks begins to reveal the terrible backstory of the two leads; and it really is terrible. Melodramatic and unconvincing, Carver’s motivation for the pursuit follows that grand tradition of women and children meeting grisly fates for the purposes of the plot. At least Gladiator had the sense to show us upfront, instead of holding it back as a misguided payoff.
The writing is poor in other ways. The dialogue, thankfully sparse, is mostly cod-cowboy (“I reckon not,” comes up a lot, an old favourite from the space-Western Serenity). The plot, despite its simplicity, still winds up riddled with bullet-holes: why does Carver waste his last shot? And just why did Gideon cut open the man at the beginning?
Speaking of which, the film exhibits much of the current Hollywood trend towards the anatomical: blood and guts – long straggly horse-ones – abound. No doubt this in the interests of “gritty” realism, but this is no Unforgiven. The picture-postcard landscapes, though breath-taking, feel a little too clear and habitable to be real. Terence Malick’s The New World did a much better job of painting America as wild and untamed country.
Towards the end, like all good Westerns, Seraphim Falls lists into the surreal, and it’s hard to know what to make of Angelica Houston’s devil-character or the pipe-smoking Indian lifted from Jarmusch’s Dead Man. But it doesn’t matter: Ancken’s throwing everything at the screen in the hope something will stick. Memorable shots abound, especially in the final third – the steppes, the steaming drops of water on the desert soil. But unfortunately, just as the two leads are half-asleep by the time they reach their final-but-final confronation, so are we.