2006Director: David von Anken
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Anjelica Houston, Liam Neeson
obody can protect nobody in this world.”
Carver (Liam Neeson) leads a band of men, hunting down the deadly, enigmatic figure of Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). They track him doggedly, from isolated snowy mountains to the arid, dry flats. Gideon picks off the bit-part players one-by-one, distilling the story into a dry kick in the throat. The two characters are tightly bound by a mysterious, horrific incident from the past, the power of which continues to flow through their bodies, driving them on further and further, one in escape, the other in pursuit.
The Western has enjoyed a vital renaissance of late. Films such as The Proposition, Open Range, The Missing and TV like “Deadwood” have been made with an intuitive sensibility and awareness that aims to both contribute to and innovate within what remains an essential and riveting brand of filmmaking. The director, who has made his name by helming episodes of notable TV shows, illustrates the kind of unobtrusive, expansive filmmaking that seems so apt for a story that deals with the twisted majesty of fate and the epic tragedy of existence. Seraphim Falls is a great Western, the kind of which might have been executed at almost any juncture in the genre’s history, so deliciously classic is its feel.
The Western is a genre in which men are judged by landscape. The vastness is sacred and will decide one way or another, like the Old Testament God, whether or not a man will perish in its useless embrace. Combining the survivalist instincts of Jeremiah Johnson and the parched desperation of Yellow Sky, the crazed heroes of the film—Carver and Gideon—are entranced by the pursuit as a means of moving toward resolution. On and on and on they go: stealing, killing and running, propelling their ragged selves forward sin by sin.
The further they stagger toward the horizon, into the unforgiving glare of the sun, the closer they come to understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. The form of the narrative is a direct lift from Frank Norris’ incredible 1899 novel, McTeague, and it translates to screen remarkably well. Doom hangs heavily in the generous skies, circumstance reducing the men to shadows cast from regret. Despite the interference of others along the way, this is an intimate confrontation between two scarred men: an almost wordless conversation in a world where actions still have tangible meaning.
Von Anken strikes an impressive and unassuming tone. Beginning as a blood and thunder chase movie and easing into a kind of metaphysical parable, the director and screenwriter (debutant Abby Everett Jaques) never lose track of the natural tension which both draws these characters together and repels them: they are compelled to face one another, yet dwell within the ultimate dread of doing so. There is not much dialogue in the film but what remains is dispassionately lyrical, reluctant but apposite utterances. Carver and Gideon are cut from the same cloth and it is their kin-like resemblances (both are resourceful, ruthless and reluctantly kind) that make them such compelling characters.
The desire to see these two monomaniacal figures share the screen is mesmerizing and such a refreshingly simple hook. And that is the wonderful charm of the Western: a man, a gun, a horse. The emotions and motivations involved may be endlessly layered in complexity but the props and settings are always the same, constantly reworked and rearranged, like restless words in a monumental sentence, jostling for meaning and recognition. When one man points a gun at another, there is more than just empty space between them.
Seraphim Falls was shot with a modest budget in just 45 days. Sure, Hollywood is glutted with nonsense and cynical commercial ventures—but as long as it continues to produce films such as this, it will remain a beguiling and essential creative environment. Unfortunately the movie received such a limited release that it almost passed by unnoticed, like a stray bullet. Do your best to stand in its way. Take it like a man.
Seraphim Falls is currently available on DVD in the States, and is playing in limited release in the UK.