AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 115 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera. Official HCF Critic
In the 1868, not long after the American Civil War, five men, their Leader Colonel Morsman Carver, have been tracking a sixth, Gideon, across Nevada for more than two weeks. Carver is determined to avenge a terrible wrong Gideon has committed. They catch up with him, shoot and hit his left arm, but Gideon gets away. After removing the bullet from his arm with his hunting knife at a secluded locale, Gideon leaves an open fire burning, which attracts the posse. He kills one of the gang with his knife and then venturing out again into the wilderness, but Carver is determined to get his man, even if his companions are increasingly less keen…
Sometimes a film virtually catches you unawares and you wonder how on earth you’d missed it before. I first saw Seraphim Falls on TV a couple of years ago and settled down to watch it, not really expecting much except a half-decent chase movie featuring one actor I really like and one I quite like. I had heard of the film, but assumed it was just a routine Western, and had therefore not bothered to see it up to now. Within 20 minutes I was absolutely spellbound by David Von Ancken’s film with its terrific suspense, superb lead performances, fantastic cinematography and obsessive nature, and felt that the film could quite happily keep going for another three hours. It even had the courage to become a bit ambiguous and allegorical towards the end, something which seems to disappoint and frustrate a lot of people expecting a more conventional Western climax, but which I adored. Seraphim Falls is a great example of how to take a really simple premise and handle it as well as possible. It’s a superb directorial debut by Ancken, who reveals a true mastery of mood, tension and storytelling, and I cannot understand why he hasn’t yet made another feature film and seems to just work in TV, though he does seem to be working steadily. I guess one reason could be that Seraphim Falls flopped, though have a peek on the IMDB and you’ll see that quite a few people love the movie, which could be well on the way to achieving cult status.
Von Ancken first researched the script for six months before joining Abby Everett Jaques to create the screenplay. The film was originally announced at the Cannes Film Festival with Liam Neeson and Richard Gere in the lead roles but Gere dropped out three weeks prior to shooting to make The Flock instead. He was replaced by Pierce Brosnan. Neeson and Brosnan both said they had the most fun in their career making the film, since they both loved Westerns as kids and were thrilled to be finally getting a chance to be in one. Shot almost entirely on location in New Mexico and, for a couple of scenes, Oregon, the aim to use no CGI fell apart when the wrong kind of weather neccessiated the creation of fake snow for some scenes. A scene where the two stars actually improvised some dialogue at the end was removed and for some reason is not on the DVD. Seraphim Falls’ lack of box office success may have had something to do with the fact that Destination Films didn’t have the clout to release a film widely in the US, though the production company Icon Films barely promoted the film.
Seraphim Falls seems to enter its story around half way through, with Gideon being pursued, and chooses not to tell us why Carver is pursuing him until towards the end. It’s a simple and obvious device, but it works nonetheless. Now, while I certainly thought he was a good, if not great, James Bond, I’ve never really rated Brosnan much as an actor, though there are many entries in his filmography I have yet to see. In any case, he is simply magnificent here right from the offset, commanding the screen and your sympathy despite not uttering a word for at least 15 min, and he gets to really show what he can do when his character has to remove a bullet from his arm. The operation is shown in very graphic detail, but what is most affecting is Gideon’s weeping when he realised what he has to do to save his own life. He then goes down some rapids in a thrilling sequence which does set expectations of a certain sort that are not fulfilled. It seems like we’re watching a film which is going to be full of exciting action scenes, but that isn’t really the case, even though Gideon has several oppurtunities to show his expertise with a knife and there’s a fair amount of blood on offer. In one scene Gideon guts a dead man so he can warm his hands, and there’s even a genuine ‘jump’ when Gideon leaps out of a horse, which may seem as silly as it sounds though by then the film has began to get a little weird.
Despite the relatively low amount of action, Seraphim Falls is surprisingly hypnotic as pursued and pursuer travel through what seems to be as much a deliberate representation of the movie West as well as of the real West as they encounter outlaws, missionaries and other archetypal Western folk. The film then seems to end as the two finally have a brutal scuffle, a convincing struggle by two worn out, dehydrated and damaged [physically and mentally] people, but it doesn’t, it carries on, and this is where the film goes off the rails for some. The two encounter Wes Studi and Anjelica Huston who spout what you’ll either consider pretentious, existential nonsense or meaningful philosophy about the nature of revenge and possible redemption for two people who in a sense have descended into a symbolic and perhaps even literal hell. Frankly, I loved it that the movie wasn’t taking the easy path and was trying to provide some food for thought, though the fantastical nature here [even if you consider that Gideon and Carver are hallucinating, there is no way they could survive where they are for any great length of time…but then are they actually human?] perhaps jars with the sense of realism that most of the film had adopted before, but you have to admire a film where the interpretation of the ending depends on how you feel about certain lofty issues, while it’s always quite clear that, in part, it’s about the futility of, and effect of, war, and therefore always relevant.
Seraphim Falls is deliberately informed by the work of great Western directors like John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, and you can have fun spotting the allusions in a film which is nonetheless most definitely its own movie. The tiny clips of a traumatic past event and eventual revelation of said past event are reminiscent of Once Upon A Time In The West, though the actual event is more like the opener of The Outlaw Josey Wales, a film which may have influenced this one more than most others. Like many of the best filmmakers who worked in this genre, Ancken, aided immensely by cinematographer John Toll [a true master at outdoor lensing with films like The Thin Red Line and The Last Samurai to his credit], has a great feel for the outdoors and constantly emphasises, without going over the top about it, the diverse environments the characters move through. The expertly chosen locations sometimes seem picked so they can comment on the story and its characters. Even if you find the film repetitive and frustrating, you have to agree that this is a great ‘outdoors’ film and you really feel like you’ve been on a great journey after you’ve watched it.
Neeson, though he’s played this kind of character before [i.e. the 1998 Les Miserables], constantly holds the attention with his quite subtle but still powerful performance. Both he and fellow Irishman Brosnan have good American accents. Michael Wincott and Ed Lauter offer strong support as two of Carver’s men, while Harry Gregson-Williams offers a very atmospheric score which refuses to go down the usual pathways. Sound effects are also superbly used throughout, but especially towards the end. Managing, perhaps paradoxically, to be both minimalist and, in the end, quite complex, Seraphim Falls is a little uneven and maybe doesn’t quite accomplish everything it sets out to do, but it’s still one of the best Westerns of recent years and shows that filmmakers can still provide some freshness in the genre while still respecting its roots and its history.