At this point, it does not even seem possible to make a Western that’s not revisionist. Modern audiences cannot take such wide-open spaces and sweeping moral judgments at face value. John Wayne has to be misogynistic and Clint Eastwood has to be exploitative of Mexican labor.
These new readings are probably for the best. There was something deeply disconcerting about a cultural hero whose main claim to fame is his ability to kill a bunch of strangers at a distance without reloading his gun. The sexual and moral ambiguities were always there, but modern filmmakers have given up on keeping them in the background. Recent releases such as The Proposition and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada are as much about ethics as adventure.
Seraphim Falls, which has at last opened after a rocky path to release, openly acknowledges all the genre traditions it builds upon. The grand finale recalls countless other showdowns of epic proportions and the characters here behave in those last moments almost as though they have seen all the other Westerns and know better than to follow in their footsteps. Mostly, though, Falls is just good old-fashioned storytelling with a good old-fashioned chase. There are long stretches that could have been made 50-some years ago were it not for their modern ingenuity.
The snow, for example, is new. The Man with No Name could just as well have trudged through snow as sand, but he did not. First-time film director David Von Ancken and his collaborator, writer Abby Everett Jaques, created subtle, brilliant environments that invert typical genre expectations. The chase through the wintry mountains takes on an urgency and terror that the desert lacks. A man can bake in the sun and die of dehydration, but not as quickly as he can freeze. When Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) emerges from an ice-cold river, he needs to light a fire within minutes or he will die and Carver (Liam Neeson) will never have the satisfaction of killing him. And why kill him?
“Seraphim Falls,” explains Carver to Gideon. Those two words are all we have to work with for most of the brutal, bone-crushing pursuit. The dialogue is sparse, but the characters are full and by the time a flashback explains the stakes, the actors’ faces have already made it clear.
Here is exactly the right movie for Brosnan following his long-running stint as 007. His Gideon does not have an ounce of glamour or dry British charm in him. Hiding behind a mat of hair and a series of grumbles, Brosnan reveals himself to be an actor worthy of meatier roles and greater respect. Neeson, whose respectability and merit have never been in question, shows that he is once again up to the task. The supporting actors are less praiseworthy, but for the most part they need only stand in silence and for that purpose they are well suited. Of them, only Angelica Huston is noteworthy. As in last year’s Art School Confidential, she appears for only a few minutes, but Falls, unlike Confidential, knows what to do with her and allows her to let loose as one of the most symbolically satisfying elements of the film.
There is a certain lingering odor associated with January releases. These are the movies that distributors did not expect to receive a single award or appear on a single critic’s top 10 list. They are left to compete with the multimillion-dollar Oscar campaigns of last year’s movies while receiving none of the buzz themselves. Seraphim Falls does not belong with this crowd. Its timing would be baffling were it not for its bafflingly chilly critical reception.
Yet, over at RottenTomatoes.com, only 46 percent of critics polled recommend it. Many think it is boring, others call it sanctimonious, and several criticize its violent content. This last count is valid. In its inevitable revisionism, Falls must show us that being shot in the arm is a great deal more painful than Indiana Jones would have us believe. The other two counts, though, are surprising. A movie that consists almost entirely of movement and desperation could hardly be boring. Awful, maybe, but not boring. As far as sanctimony goes, it is true that there are allusions to the Good Book and even a few Bibles on hand. The finale could be read as preachy. But a layer of futility rests atop every one of the characters’ actions such that their story cannot be taken as pure allegory. The sanctimonious lessons are overshadowed by the bleak setting. There is a moral, but also a wink about its hopelessness.
From this, you may conclude that Seraphim Falls is a depressing flick. That is probably a fair assessment, though it should by no means deter you. Here is a lean, effective Western that embraces the genre traditions of epic men in epic fights without turning a blind eye to the troubling nature of such heroes. If, come December, this is not one of my picks for the best films of the year, you will know it has been a better year for film than 2006.