SERAPHIM FALLS (2007)

Seraphim Falls is the feature film debut of David Von Ancken, a journeyman television director who in the past five years has directed episodes for a dozen different shows. In this case he wrote the screenplay and it is marked by both efficiency and innovation, especially in the form of Pierce Brosnan’s inventiveness with his available resources as he is being tracked by a Liam Neeson bent on revenge. Neeson and Brosnan are evenly matched opponents: both demonstrate ruthlessness in some situations yet both are entirely sympathetic. The only element too conventional for me was the inevitable partial flashblacks that surely allude to an inciting incident that will not be revealed in full until the ultimate confrontation.

Fortunately, however, the action begins immediately without unecessary introductions: the gunshot commencing the chase rings out within seconds of the opening shot of the film. It begins firmly in Jeremiah Johnson territory, with both men wearing huge animal skins and surrounded by snow and rivers, and their descent down the mountain continues until the final scene on the cracked desert floor without a drop of water in sight and most of their clothes now shed.

Like the pursuit, the film is never lethargic but briskly paced without being rushed. There is a constant sense of urgency that keeps it always in the chase register without decelerating into a mere tracking procedural. Unlike most movies in which characters pass through a variety of situations over a long distance, something actually changes at every encounter. One almost gets the sense that too much is always happening, but it is a refreshing alternative from movies whose characters emerge from each new situation just as they entered it.

The film is not gratuitously violent but it stands out among westerns simply because it does not flinch from the methods of these two Civil War veterans trained to survive. But its manner is so lacking in sensationalism that even its more surprising moments feel natural rather than exploitative. It is surely the best western since Open Range and would be the best of 2007 unless you count The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men as variations of the genre. At any rate it is superior to Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, which is now commendable only for its score and Ben Foster’s jacket. Seraphim Falls is one of my new favorites of 2007 and has my unqualified recommendation.

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7 thoughts on “SERAPHIM FALLS (2007)

  1. Ryan says:

    MANY SPOILERS AHEAD:

    I enjoyed aspects of it more than I enjoyed it as a whole. The Jeremiah Johnson start, with Pierce dispatching guys with dropped knives, was unique, and the descent into Hell complete with a visit from the devil was an interesting idea. Houston’s character, however, felt to me like she came out of a different movie, and it was jarring. Most of the movie had this gritty realism, and all of a sudden an obviously symbolic and spiritual character literally appeared out of thin air, and it wasn’t subtle at all. Ok, now I get the whole descent thing, Mr. Director, but having her appear supernaturally is inconsistent with the tone you set in the rest of the movie.

    Also, the flashbacks that only fully reveal the source of the conflict at the very end annoy me, too They were even a bit annoying in Once Upon A Time in the West and The Quick and the Dead, though the story each told was very compelling. I don’t know of a better way around it, but once they start teasing you, you know for sure there’s going to be something really bad that justifies the one guy going after the other, and why not just come out with it? You could tell where they were going with it in SF as soon as you got the barest hint: Pierce probably killed one of Neeson’s family members, but he’s a sympathetic character so far, so he probably didn’t mean to. What happens? Exactly that.

    It wasn’t bad, it just lacked in a few departments for me. I think I saw it over a year ago, so I’m sure I’m forgetting some of the good stuff.

  2. Nobody says:

    SPOILERS ALERT:

    Houston’s character, however, felt to me like she came out of a different movie, and it was jarring. Most of the movie had this gritty realism, and all of a sudden an obviously symbolic and spiritual character literally appeared out of thin air, and it wasn’t subtle at all.

    I don’t think it was that jarring because Brosnan and Neeson had just bumped into Wes Studi’s character who I think is an angelic counterpart to Houston’s character. His nature is more ambiguous but I think he definitely prepares the viewer to accept the more obviously supernatural immediately afterwards.

    But then I wouldn’t have minded if it was more sudden because I love supernatural characters crashing movies at the end. Call it a deus ex machina, but I love the ending of Wild at Heart too!

    Ok, now I get the whole descent thing, Mr. Director, but having her appear supernaturally is inconsistent with the tone you set in the rest of the movie.

    I loved the shift of tone because it is so uncommon in Westerns. The only other Western I can think of with such tonal changes is the adaptation of the French BD “Blueberry” (“Renegade” in the US), whose final confrontation is mystical rather than physical and takes place in a computer-generated psychic landscape induced by peyote. Unfortunately the whole movie bores me to death and Colm Meaney’s fake beard is just too embarrassing.

    Moreover I thought Houston’s appearance actually fit the extremely surreal landscape of the desert floor. It already looks like a Salvidor Dali painting and I haven’t seen such a beautiful landscape since the lakebed in X-Men 3.

    Furthermore the heat naturally suggests hallucinations, and physical mirages had already been visually implied in the distance. So though I didn’t expect Houston to show up, once she did I thought her presence was perfectly natural.

  3. Nobody says:

    MORE SPOILERS DISCUSSED:

    I don’t know of a better way around it . . .

    Neither do I, which frustrates me.

    The only idea I had was to just dispose of the flashback altogether and never reveal why Neeson was after him because the details don’t really matter. All you have to know is that Neeson really hates Brosnan for the forgiveness to be effective.

    . . . but once they start teasing you, you know for sure there’s going to be something really bad that justifies the one guy going after the other, and why not just come out with it? You could tell where they were going with it in SF as soon as you got the barest hint: Pierce probably killed one of Neeson’s family members, but he’s a sympathetic character so far, so he probably didn’t mean to.

    Call me thick but I did not expect the revelation that Brosnan didn’t mean to kill the family. I was expecting a Once Upon a Time in the West style flashback and thought Brosnan would just turn out to be an uber General Sherman.

    However I thought it somewhat undermined the impact of the final forgiveness that Brosnan’s misdeed was not intentional. But at least Brosnan never said “it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t mean to!” That would have meant we wasted two hours just because of misunderstandings, which is what Babel was.

    But I did like that after they get up, they do not walk away with an arm over each other’s shoulder. Just because you forgive someone does not mean you are now friends; forgiveness does not simply erase the past in one moment.

    It wasn’t bad, it just lacked in a few departments for me. I think I saw it over a year ago, so I’m sure I’m forgetting some of the good stuff.

    You might be forgetting some of the best stuff! I probably fell in love with the movie near the beginning when Brosnan sliced open the body of a freshly dispatched gunman just so he could warm up his cold hands! Shades of Han Solo, but a human is still different than a fictional Tauntaun!

    But nothing could have prepared me for the way Brosnan uses his expired horse to get the drop on an approaching Neeson & Co.! That might be the best thing I’ve ever seen in a Western.

    I also liked little touches like the pacifist missionaries (complete with passing allusion to the Mountain Meadows Massacre!) who empty Neeson and Wincott’s firearms. I just appreciated that no encounter along the route was wasted for its potential effect on the overall plot.

  4. Ryan says:

    MAJOR SPOILER AHEAD:

    Man, I did forget some stuff. I don’t remember Wes Studi at all. What did he do?

    I had forgotten but now remember the scene where Brosnan bursts forth from the horse carcass. That was awesome, if a little bit ridiculous. (That’s what happened, right? He hid in its belly?)

    Still don’t like Houston’s appearance.

    I do appreciate what you said about each encounter being significant.

  5. Ryan says:

    Also, sorry for not indicating spoilers in my first post and my last one.

  6. Nobody says:

    No problem, that’s what I’m here for.

    Wes Studi sort of guarded a small pool of water and took one of the two horses Brosnan was leading and gave it back to Neeson when he came by later. He also mused what is a man’s life worth, immediately referring to a drink of water but obviously not just that.

  7. Nobody says:

    I said:
    The only other Western I can think of with such tonal changes is the adaptation of the French BD “Blueberry” (”Renegade” in the US), whose final confrontation is mystical rather than physical and takes place in a computer-generated psychic landscape induced by peyote. Unfortunately the whole movie bores me to death…

    So right after I slagged off this movie I hear Grant Morrison praise it in a report of his Q&A panel at the New York Comic Con:

    Leaping off the examples of Lindsay Anderson and David Lynch from earlier, a fan asked if there were any other meta-perspectives Morrison had seen in film. “The best depiction of a drug experience is in Renegade. If you haven’t seen Renegade go get Renegade.”

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