Seraphim Falls

Seraphim Falls

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

It's the late 1800s. The Ruby Mountains, remote and desolate. The rough landscape is covered with snow. We see a shivering man, wrapped in furs, squat down to build a fire and roast his meagre dinner. Behind him, his horse is stamping at the ground, clearly distressed by something. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a bullet hits him in the shoulder. Abandoning his horse and rifle, he runs for his life.

Seraphim Falls opens with a chase sequence which few films can match. For the first half hour we scarcely get a chance to catch our breath as we watch our anonymous hero flee from one hazard to another, ruthlessly hunted by a gang of five equally mysterious strangers. The cruel landscape and the remorselessness of his pursuers test the limits of his endurance, creating that sense of desperation and hardship essential to an effective Western. By the time the pace slows down a little, we are full of questions which the film takes its time to answer. Who is this man? What has he done to inspire such hatred? What is it that drives his incredible will to stay alive?

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It's unfortunate that, beyond these questions, not all of which are ever answered satisfactorily, there's not much of a story to Seraphim Falls. Of course, many of the best Westerns have only very simply stories, and that shouldn't matter if the performances are strong enough. Pierce Brosnan is certainly more impressive than usual, finally playing someone his own age and getting to use that rugged face effectively. As the leader of his persecutors - the one for whom this is a personal obsession - Liam Neeson also manages to break away from type a little. The film balances our sympathies well as it gradually becomes apparent why Neeson's character feels so wronged, and his intelligence makes him appealing even before he lets emotion show. Yet neither actor is as intense as the plot requires, dragging them through seemingly endless physical tests toward a gradual psychological breakdown. As a result, the film is too often just slow when it ought to be lingering, just empty when we ought to be in awe of its wide open spaces.

It's a rare thing to see anyone attempt a film of this sort these days, and Seraphim Falls has to be given credit for trying. It's not just working to a template, either - it certainly has ideas of its own. Its vision of the western frontier is a bleak one, full of grim railroad towns and the dusty bones of unsuccessful settlers, a place where even missionaries cannot be trusted. Its dramatically varied landscapes are beautifully photographed, capturing the lure of the mountains and plains just as it conveys their dangers.

This curious journey mirrors the emotional breakdown of the leading characters, to the point where the film becomes very strange indeed, with Anjelica Huston stalking the desert in a velvet gown offering Devilish bargains. At this point it doesn't really matter what's real and what isn't. Most of the conflict is being played out in the men's memories. Unfortunately, these flashback sequences are not strong enough to carry as much weight as they should, as a result of which the story loses some of its potency. It's a shame. Seraphim Falls is still worth watching, but it doesn't have the power which its brilliant opening sequence suggests.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2007
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Seraphim Falls packshot
One man hunts another across the treacherous landscapes of the old west.
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Director: David Von Ancken

Writer: David Von Ancken, Abby Everett Jaques

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter, John Robinson, Robert Baker, Anjelica Huston

Year: 2006

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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