In 1868, the Old West was a brutal place. One man would kill another for a lucky hand of poker as much as he would for suspicion of horse-thieving or to avenge the death of a brother. So why is Carver (Liam Neeson) relentlessly hunting down Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) without mercy? This is the big mystery of the movie “Seraphim Falls” which was in theaters earlier this year and has recently been released on DVD.
On and on it goes, for the first two-thirds of the movie. We watch a testosterone-driven drama as one man pursues the other across the landscape of the American West. A sparsely-populated, wide-open region, there is little human contact. What little there is, is mostly between Carver and his four hired guns (Ed Lauter, Michael Wincott, Jimmi Simpson, and Robert Baker), none of whom have much to add in the way of plot or character development. Two or three times, Carver catches up to Gideon and they exchange a few brief lines of dialogue, but each time Gideon escapes and we are no closer to finding out what this hunt is all about.
All we do learn is that Gideon seems to have almost super-human abilities in the way he constantly escapes death, has lightning reflexes, heals himself from a bullet wound, and is able to bump off his pursuers one by one. (Hmmm… Now where have I seen something like this before?) His incredible powers have led some critics to dub him James Bond’s ancestor. I’m not sure I would go quite that far, but I will admit that his physical resemblance to James Bond is uncanny.
From time to time, the chase crosses paths with icons of the Western Frontier—a gang of bank robbers, religious pioneers in a wagon train, a camp of workers building the transcontinental railroad, a family of settlers in a log cabin—yet these minor mini-adventures again tell us nothing about who these two men are and why they hate each other so much.
The same can be said for Carver’s posse. Although played by proven actors, none are anything more than one-dimensional characters, none offer any significant thoughts or advice to Carver, and we don’t care when they are finally bumped off.
This weak-plotted and slow-developing film gets frustrating and eventually boring. By the time we finally do learn what this is all about—if still watching the film, that is—we’re passed the point of caring. Prior to that point, since we know so little about these characters, we’re not sure which of these two hate-filled men to root for, although perhaps we might lean more toward the side of Gideon. After we learn the big secret, we might lean a little more toward Carver.
Now, I’m all for moral ambiguity—really, I am—but with so little information on these characters, it’s hard to care much about either or the situation they have gotten themselves into.
Granted, the movie isn’t absolutely horrible. The stunning cinematography by Academy Award winner John Toll is literally breathtaking. He managed to capture gorgeous vistas of snow-capped mountains in Oregon and wind-swept deserts in New Mexico.
And, in all fairness, I will say that the acting by Neeson and Brosnan is first rate. They both are clearly putting their all into it. They are trying very hard to rise above the bland, undeveloped material by compensating with an amazingly focused intensity. Commendable performances, certainly; but unfortunately, in the end, there is just not enough substance to build on. The most beautiful mansion will crumble without a foundation.
The movie was promoted, by its producers, as an anti-war film. But that’s very hard to see. When we finally do learn, after an hour-and-a-quarter, why Carver is chasing Gideon, it turns out, through a flashback, that both had at one time been good men but an atrocity during the Civil War turned them against each other and filled them with hate. Now, finally, we can see the significance of the title and view them as fallen angels. But it’s too little, too late.
After this, as they plunge forward to the inevitable ending, the landscape turns surrealistic as they are approached by devil-like characters (Wes Studi and Anjelica Houston) with whom they must make bargains. The change in style, this late in the game, is off-putting, and leads to a final confrontation which is not very satisfying.
First time feature director David von Ancken successfully creates the rough, tough, macho world of the Old West, but living through it for nearly two hours is neither pleasant nor inspirational.
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