Two blokes from across the pond make for some pretty dope cowboys, reckons Judge David Johnson.
Never turn your back on the past.
This tidy Western slipped beneath the radar when it hit theaters earlier this year, but rolls into town on this DVD ready to shoot up some varmints.
Facts of the Case
The film focuses on two men: Carver (Liam Neeson, Batman Begins) and Gideon (Pierce Brosnan, Die Another Day). Both are brutal men, driven by a dark tragedy that they shared in. This event is not revealed until later in the film, but what transpired—and I don't want to blow it here—has driven Carver mad with vengeance against Gideon—so much so that Carver's gotten a posse together, including Hayes (Michael Wincott), a hard man looking for easy money, to pursue Gideon into the mountains of New Mexico. The pursuit takes Carver and Gideon to the plain and, finally, to the water-starved desert, where the two men will finally come face to face with their past.
On the surface, Seraphim Falls is a simple film. It took me a while after the end credits rolled for me to fully digest it and react to it. When the film first wrapped up in my living room, I had mixed feelings. It seemed a bit long, a bit weird at the end, and a bit…well…simple. But as I thought about what director David Von Ancken accomplished in his film, the more I appreciated it. Now as I write this, having fully absorbed it, I submit that this is a Western well worth your time.
The first thing that will leap out and smack you in the face is the setting. Man, the locations look amazing and, outside of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there hasn't been a film that's wowed me with the scenery as much as Seraphim Falls. From the frost-bitten mountains in the beginning to the expansive flatland panoramas and finally to the arid desert scenes, all of the places the characters traverse are suitable for framing. Von Ancken's camera lens devours the backdrops and the quality video transfer renders the landscape with panache. In the making-of documentary, it's mentioned that the setting is a character of the film, and sure it's a cliché, but it's a cliché that absolutely applies here. The extreme changes in milieu help drive the film and add a memorable element to the storytelling. Is New Mexico the new New Zealand? Maybe it is. Maybe it is.
Once you're able to peel your eyes away from the lush foliage, you'll notice the two players in this drama. Carver and Gideon are similar men, dark, tight-lipped, and lethal, driven by separate desperations: Carver's is to exact revenge, and Gideon is to survive that revenge. As such, Gideon—as the prey—is subjected to the most brutality, including some gut-busting scenes in the beginning where he is shot, plummets into an ice-cold raging river, picks the bullet out of his shoulder, cauterizes the wound, climbs a tree, rolls down a hill, and warms his hand in the intestines of a dead man. It's hardcore stuff, made even more potent by the fact it all happens right at the beginning. Von Ancken just tosses this at us without warning or preamble and, five minutes in, Pierce Brosnan is subjected to some crazy @#$%.
This all-in approach to the storytelling works well, as the only question is what is driving Carver to relentlessly pursue his quarry. We get some glimpses from the two men's tortured dreams, but it isn't until the third act that the tragedy that prompted the lethal cat-and-mouse game is fully revealed. Besides that, all we need to know is that Carver hates Gideon's guts, both guys kick all kinds of ass, and we're not entirely sure who to root for. It's an uncomfortable position for a moviegoer like me—someone who likes his characters black-and-white—to be in, but it worked and Neeson's and Brosnan's excellent performances generated the gravitas to keep me involved.
Seraphim Falls is a mythic journey. One man pursues another, but along the way each finds themselves in the company of interesting characters. There's a young group of bank robbers who are too nosy for their own good, missionaries with an eye for gold, violence-prone railroad barons, an eccentric Native American who guards a desert oasis, and, the capper, Anjelica Huston as…the devil? Yes, Seraphim Falls gets a little wacky toward the end. As the men enter the final phase of their engagement, in the blistering heat of the desert, they each encounter a traveling saleswoman, clad in red, who offers intriguing barters to them. The costume designer, in the documentary, notes that Von Ancken asked her to design Huston's dress with the devil in mind, but on the accompanying commentary track, the director is obtuse about the purpose of the sequence, which stands out in stark contrast to the hard realism that preceded it. Regardless of whether the men are dwelling in the afterlife or hallucinating or whatever else you can conjure up, what's important is the symbolism of the men yielding their lifeblood (Gideon gives up his horse, Carver his water) for the means to defeat the other. Two men, boiled down to what drives them, stripped of everything and finally squaring off with one another—it's the heart of Seraphim Falls and the one aspect that stayed with me the longest.
Technically, the disc is sound. Though some bits of the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looked soft, overall the video quality is great. The sprawling vistas are fantastic and will offer your television and varied color palette to work with. The 5.1 digital mix is effective, flexing its muscle most in the beginning as Gideon fends off the forces of nature. The behind-the-scenes feature is a handsome production, linking together cast and crew interviews, and Von Ankcen and production designer Michael Hanan deliver an insightful commentary.
It's not packed with gunfights and cheap women, but Seraphim Falls is a stunner to look at and tells a deceptively simple story that should stick with you for a long while. Check it out.
Saddle up and ride.
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Scales of Justice
• Making-of Documentary
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