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Seraphim Falls   B

Icon Productions / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: David Von Ancken
Writers: David Von Ancken, Abby Everett Jaques
Cast: Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Wincott, John Robinson, Xander Berkeley, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi, Anjelica Huston.

Review by Rob Vaux

Seraphim Falls adroitly capitalizes on two high points of 2006: The Proposition's defiant efforts to revitalize the western and The Matador's timely presentation of Pierce Brosnan to chase away the January blues. Though not as successful as either of those earlier films, it's still a breath of fresh air in a season that dearly needs one. Slow moving, overly structured, and at times preposterously stone-faced, it still delivers a compelling narrative with grit and enthusiasm, echoing The Proposition's promise to defend this genre unto the death.

Its basis is an extended chase between two men: Carver (Liam Neeson), the pursuer, and Gideon (Brosnan), the prey. The reasons behind it are enigmatic, blurred by the past but clearly central in the minds of both figures. We see snippets of incident -- names like "Antietam," a farmhouse on fire, a beautiful woman with smoldering eyes -- but the specifics remain hidden until the very end. What is clear is that Carver will go to any lengths to claim Gideon's hide, and Gideon will move heaven and earth to stay alive. The chase takes up the entirety of the film's length, starting in the heart of the Ruby Mountains, and ending in the sun-baked wastes of the desert. Along the way, Carver and Gideon engage in episodic bouts of nasty conflict and encounter all manner of settlers and madmen who alternately aid and threaten them in their quest.

Director David Von Ancken sets a proper tone for the drama, and has a marvelous sense of evolving landscape as snowy mountains slowly give way to chilly foothills, then rolling plans, then bare scrub, then sand. Westerns are rife with such journeys, but few have the exquisite visual evolution of this one. The two men who travel across it bear the marks of their cinematic forefathers as well; each has a little Ethan Edwards in him, and a little Josey Wales to boot. To those archetypes, the actors bring a deep reserve of soulfulness, which colors the ensuing action. Fair play has never seemed so vicious as it does in Neeson's hands, while few fugitives have the desperate cunning of Brosnan's haunted trapper. Von Ancken parlays that into an ingenious series of clashes testing their resolve, while using the peripheral figures they meet to periodically change the parameters of the conflict.

That last part causes the most problems, for while Seraphim Falls is finely paced, it also suffers from a fair amount of deus ex machina. Travelers on their road always seem to have just the right equipment, or to take just enough away to keep the pursuit interesting. Von Ancken dodges the worst of it by adopting an allegorical tone -- culminating in Anjelica Huston's Madame Louise, who carries more than a whiff of the infernal to her -- but the screenplay by Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques still strains to provide compelling justification.

Against that, however, Seraphim Falls responds with a strong respect for its characters, and a commitment to the grim atmosphere that the western has engendered of late. The savagery of the frontier exacerbates both men's baser instincts, and their respective struggles to rise above it give their confrontations a solid emotional truth. Von Ancken augments that by investing his characters with genuine cleverness, letting us see how smart they each need to be in order to keep pace with the other. The action comes in violent spurts, and resonates as much by what might happen as what does. It loses its footing a bit towards the end, as the stations on their march become more arbitrary and the climax stumbles through a little hand-waving resolution. But even then, the film's dark visual poetry leaves a strong impression that its flaws simply can't undo.

And like The Proposition before it, Seraphim Falls makes a fierce case for a genre that may still be in permanent decline. The western will never be what it once was, and the nihilism shaping its latest incarnations suggests a finality that may ultimately claim it for good. But clearly, it still has things to say -- if not always perfectly, then with a forthright conviction that allows its strengths to linger -- and in a season of diminished expectations, that's more than enough to justify a trip to the theaters. Brosnan really should make a habit of this: rescuing January from the likes of Epic Movie is a feat that even James Bond would envy.

Review published 02.02.2007.

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