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.