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Seraphim Falls (4/10)

by Tony Medley

OK, so Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson aren’t Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. But they are both relatively good actors and one would think that a movie highlighting the two of them would also be relatively good. One would be wrong. For awhile, it’s pretty good. Then we get to the half hour ending, which undoes all the good that came before.

The movie is replete with incredible plot devices. Consider:

  1. Gideon (Brosnan) gets shot in one arm, so bad that the arm is disabled for the rest of the movie. Despite this, he climbs a huge tree even though there are no low branches. Tarzan would find it daunting. But Gideon does it...with one arm!
  2. When up in the tree, and it looks as if he’s at least 20 feet up, he drops a knife on a guy looking for him that lands in the middle of the guy’s skull, splitting it. Sometime in a movie I want to see someone try some real long shot like this and miss. This is a one in a hundred shot, but Gideon does it.
  3. Gideon tries to steal a horse but is caught by a young woman who holds a shotgun on him. He falls to the ground because of the pain in his arm, and she puts down her gun, goes over to him, takes him in and cares for him. Yeah, sure.
  4. Gideon makes a truly ingenious trap and goes on his way, again using only one arm. The trap works perfectly. His pursuers take exactly the same path he took, even though they don’t know where he is or where he’s going, and one guy gets slammed by the trap exactly as Gideon intended.
  5. He guts a horse and hides inside. I mean, he completely takes the innards out of the horse so that he fits inside the carcass. Don’t forget, this guy can only use one arm.

These are just a few. But even worse than all these, Brosnan mumbles so much the film needs subtitles to understand his dialogue.

The plot is pretty good. Carver (Neeson) with his posse, Hayes (Michael Wincott), Parsons (Ed Lauter), Pope (Robert Baker), and Kid (John Robison), is pursuing Gideon, but we don’t know why. The film starts in the mountains in the dead of winter. The pursuit only takes a few days, but the film ends in the middle of a desert in the middle of summer (the film was shot entirely on location in New Mexico, except for the raging river and waterfall, which was shot at Koosah and Sahalie Falls and at McKenzie Bridge in Oregon). When they are traversing the desert, where are they going? In fact, throughout the entire movie they are in wilderness, not on any trail, but it’s never explained where they are going, or why. Regardless, they traverse lots of diverse scenery and it’s beautifully shot by John Toll.

What’s good about the movie is that it’s a mystery until the end as to why Carver is out to get Gideon. If this had ended with a “High Noon” shootout, it would have been a good movie.

Alas, it doesn’t. After we learn what’s really going on, about 90 minutes in, the movie continues for another 25 minutes that are excruciating, exacerbated by their silliness. From a good chase movie it turns into some sort of allegory on revenge with characters appearing out of nowhere with no raison d’être, like Madame Louise (Angelica Huston), who drives up in the middle of the desert in what looks like the Surrey With the Fringe on Top, but without the fringe.

Earlier both Gideon and Carver run into an Indian at a water hole who apparently has nothing better to do than sit by himself alone puffing his pipe out in the middle of nowhere waiting for people to come so he can dispense obtuse philosophy while selling the right to use the water.

Director-writer (with Abby Jaques Everett) David Von Ancken tried to make a chase movie with a message, an anti-war theme. In the middle of the film are two lines of dialogue that stands as the theme of the movie. One of the posse asks Carver, looking at two corpses, “What the hell were they doin’ out here?”

Carver replies, “Certain kind of decision. Once a man makes it he can end up nowhere but here.”

The characters of both Carter and Gideon are inconsistent with what we learn about them. One reason for this is to develop a plot, of course. In a mystery, a director must use sleight of hand to get us to believe in a certain way so that we will be surprised when we learn the truth. But their inconsistency mars the film.

Unfortunately, Van Ancken based the anti-war theme of the movie on the American Civil War, the war that caused more casualties to Americans than any ever fought (623,000 deaths). But, considering that it ended slavery in America, who is to say that the Civil War was not a war with a purpose or a positive outcome? Some wars are unavoidable, like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, all wars that made the world a better place, even though they caused enormous suffering and personal tragedies. Rather than attacking war itself, people like Van Ancken would be better off to attack the people and events that caused the wars, like the British political system that abused the colonists, the South and Robert E. Lee for the institution of slavery and forcing a war to defend it, and aggressors Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan for World War II.

This is a pretty good movie for 90 minutes. It’s undone by the last half hour, which left me wishing I hadn’t wasted my time.