The revival of the western, initiated quite spectacularly last year with “The Proposition,” the bloody tale of a brutal effort to bring the Australian outback under the rule of law against a background of fraternal conflict, continues with this American effort, which is just a tad less grisly but no less extravagantly over-the-top. “Seraphim Falls” is essentially no more than the old chestnut about one wronged man pursuing another on horseback relentlessly for reasons that will be revealed in due course. But the tale is invested with a sense of importance—or, if you prefer, pretension—not only by the gorgeous locations, but also by the vivid, sometimes swooning style adopted by director David Von Ancken (who also co-wrote the script with Abby Everett Jacques) and a final act that steps over the line from something akin to heightened realism to a decidedly mystical state.
The picture begins with the wounding of a solitary mountain traveler, eventually identified as an ex-Union army officer named Gideon (Pierce Brosnan), by one of the four men in the employ of a grimly determined fellow named Carver (Liam Neeson). Gideon, clearly a man with not only a considerable instinct for self-preservation but an enormous tolerance for pain, extracts the bullet himself (in a scene that will have many averting their eyes), survives the trudge through the snowy wilderness, and manages to pick off two of Carver’s men along the way with stratagems that some viewers will find disgusting and others as pleasurably imaginative as the killings in splatter movies.
From that point the picture becomes a kind of weird picaresque as hunted and hunters encounter a succession of colorful characters—a family scratching out an existence in a nearby valley, a gang of bank robbers, a crew laying railway track, a strange itinerant preacher and his flock. By the last reel Carver’s posse has melted away, he’s left alone against Gideon, and the two men confront one another mano-a-mano on a parched desert—but not before each meets up with one final figure, a mysterious, beautifully accoutered peddler (Anjelica Houston), who appears out of nowhere in a wagon from which she sells elixir and makes sure that each combatant is equipped with a pistol housing a single bullet.
Clearly by thus point the movie has passed into surrealist mode, and the ending takes it into almost loony redemptive territory. It must also be said that the cause of Carver’s crusade—shown about two-thirds of the way in via flashback (not, it has to be admitted, one of the picture’s stronger moments, one that’s all too obviously calculated to exude the moral ambiguity required in such “adult westerns”)—is awfully predictable, given the genre the script’s working in.
Still, “Seraphim Falls” mostly works as an extravagantly juiced-up remodeling of an old western formula. It parades a small army of colorfully seedy characters past the lens—Tom Noonan’s creepy man of the cloth is a special treat—and provides some amusingly ghoulish scenes (not just Gideon’s self-surgery, but another involving the disemboweled carcass of a horse). And though Brosnan and Neeson won’t efface memories of the Hollywood western icons of the past, they both go through the script’s paces with intensity and—from the look of things—a good deal of tolerance for uncomfortable conditions. Special kudos are due John Toll’s luscious widescreen cinematography, which gives the images an uncommonly elegant look.
That lustrous appearance is entirely in keeping with the makers’ desire to invest “Seraphim Falls” with a mythic quality, an effort that doesn’t really succeed. It’s basically just an old-fashioned western chase saga with delusions of grandeur. But it’s still enjoyable as a flamboyant exercise in nostalgia.