Seraphim Falls: Liam Neeson obsessively pursues Pierce Brosnan in this austere & atmospheric post-civil war Western

Seraphim Falls(2006), directed by David Von Ancken, is a gritty Western set in the desolate, post-civil war American landscape where an Ex-confederate officer, played by Liam Neeson, driven by vengeance is hunting for a Union soldier played by Pierce Brosnan.

Before his Action-film-star making performance in 2008’s Taken: where he played Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who sets about tracking down his teenage daughter kidnapped by Albanian terrorists in France, Liam Neeson was more famous for his dramatic turns in classy period epics like “Schindler’s list,” “Rob Roy” and “Michael Collins”; yes, he did do “The Phantom Menace,” and was also the star of one of my favorite (and criminally underrated) superhero films, Sam Raimi’s “Darkman,” but he was not considered a go-to-guy for action films- considered more as a mentor figure for upcoming action heroes as seen in “Menace,” “Batman Begins” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” But just a couple of years before “Taken,” Neeson starred as Colonel Morsman Carver in David Von Ancken‘s sturdy, minimalist Western, “Seraphim Falls” that could very well be considered a dress rehearsal (albeit in a very different kind of dress and a different place) for his Bryan Mills. Carver is cast from the same mold as Clint Eastwood’s “Outlaw Josey Wales“: a confederate colonel who watched his house, and family, being burnt to the ground by union soldiers; now Carver is out for vengeance, obsessively pursuing the Union Officer, Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) who was responsible for the massacre of his family. Though the tragedy that befalls Carver is much more severe than Mills – and hence Carver is much more obsessive (to the point of being psychotic), amoral and even nihilistic in his pursuit – the obsessive drive that Mills displays in tracking down his daughter and annihilating her kidnappers in an alien land can be traced back to Carver’s obsessive quest for vengeance in the harsh terrain of the Ruby Mountains in the 1860s. Carver also is reminiscent of  Peyton Westlake from “Darkman”: the scientist turned borderline-psychotic superhero, who hunts down those who disfigured him. As for Brosnan’s Gideon, he’s more like Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson“: a union soldier who turns his back on civilization, and choose to live in the mountains, in harmony with nature. This film came four years after Brosnan had retired from playing Bond- and unlike the smooth, suave and dapper Bond, here he’s grizzled and on the run; though his fortitude and ingenuity in surviving the numerous obstacles placed in is path – armed with only a knife – reminds one of Bond; and maybe even Sylvester Stallone’s iconic John Rambo from “First Blood.” And unlike Bond, who coolly walks away unaffected by his violent actions, here violence has a spiritually transformative effect on Gideon: he is so affected by the death of Carver’s family, and his inability to stop it, that he quits the army and decides to wander the wilderness. Of course, Carver does not know this (and neither do the audiences) until the film’s climax.

The film unfolds in the best tradition of an outdoor ‘Anthony Mann’ Western, mainly “The Naked Spur”, where we have a morally conflicted protagonist chasing the (not totally inhuman) antagonist through rough and treacherous terrain. Like all great ‘Trail’ Westerns, this is very much a visual film, with the narrative driven by images, and the director and actors relying on words very sparsely. The director does not waste time on exposition or character buildup, and plunges the audiences right in the midst of the action: the year is 1868, within the snow-covered Ruby Mountains, we see Gideon roasting hare over an open fire. Suddenly, gunshots ring out with one striking his left arm. He grabs what he can and races down the mountain. His attackers emerge from their cover to inspect his campsite. Colonel Morsman Carver, a former Confederate officer, is accompanied by Pope, Hayes, Parsons and the Kid, who are all engaged in a bounty operation to apprehend him. Gideon, though severely wounded, manages to keep ahead of his pursuers, and even manages to extract the bullet out with his hunting knife- in one of the most graphical and gut-wrenching scenes of the film. Gideon then lay a trap for his pursuers, and manages to kill Pope with his knife. Gideon soon comes across an isolated homestead in the hills, and tries to steal the horse in their stable. But he’s caught by a young woman named Charlotte who helps him after she realizes he is injured. She dresses his wound and her family let him sleep overnight. Next morning, Carver and his men barges in, but by then Gideon has left.

So the chase continues, with the four men on horseback pursuing Gideon (on foot) through the snowy, rocky terrain. Soon, Gideon manages to kill another one of his pursuers: he lays an ambush using a bear trap which impales the Kid, who is then shot by Carver as an act of mercy. Next, Gideon runs into a gang of bank robbers wanted by the law, and though he insists that he’s not going to inform on them (as he has no interest in returning to town), one of the gang members follows him, and tries to kill him. Gideon tries his best to dissuade him, but is left with no choice other than to kill the young outlaw. Gideon takes his horse and rides away. Here, for the first time, we get a little bit of information about who Gideon is: one of the outlaws remember seeing him on the battlefield; he remembers Gideon to be an almost superhuman Union soldier whose children fell to bullets right in front of him, even though not a single bullet managed to hit Gideon. Anyway, back to Gideon’s pursuers, they come across the dead outlaw left behind by Gideon. Parsons realizes that the outlaw carries a bounty far exceeding what Carver is paying him for his services; he decides to quit tracking Gideon and leave with the corpse, but Carver shoots his horse – claiming that the horse belongs to him; which means that Parson has to carry the corpse on his back and walk thirty miles into town. Coming across a railroad under construction, Gideon hitches his horse and steals some food. The foreman recognizes the horse as stolen and, mistaken Gideon for the wanted Outlaw, detains Gideon. Carver and his remaining man, Hayes, also reach the railroad site and search for Gideon. Meanwhile, Gideon escapes from custody and makes off with another horse. 

As Carver and Hayes draw closer, Gideon’s horse can no longer take the strain of the heat and collapses. Gideon euthanizes the horse with his knife. When Carver and Hayes finally reach the horse’s carcass, they are stunned to see the horse disemboweled. Suddenly, Gideon leaps out of the horse’s belly and takes Hayes captive. Carver coolly shoots down Hayes, and then goes on to remind Gideon about the incident that took place at Seraphim falls, when Gideon and his men had torched his home and killed his family. Then the two men fight, Gideon eventually getting the better of Carver. He points Carver in the direction of a town and tells him that he will get nothing but torment if he continues his pursuit. Gideon takes the horses ridden by Carver and Hayes and sets off deeper into the countryside. So far so good, with the film pretty much following a clear and conventional narrative line, and all the genre tropes in place. But now the film shifts gears and veers into a strange, surrealistic space; from an Anthony Mann film, it morphs into a Paul Thomas Anderson film- with some heavy-going metaphysical commentary on the state of humankind, violence, vengeance and masculinity. The geography also shifts from the lush, mountainous terrain to a blistering white desert, out of which strange characters, like Wes Studi’s Indian trader and Anjelica Huston’s Madame Louise, materializes and disappears. Carver continues his pursuit of Gideon, and when he finally catches up, both are close to exhaustion. Gideon shoots Carver, but does not kill him, instead offers himself up to be killed. Carver decides not to shoot him and throws his pistol aside. Gideon helps Carver to his feet and the two men walk into the distance away from each other, and as they walks away, it appears that both of them are absorbed into the desert heat.

Apart from the last third of the film, which sort of messes up the generic Western\chase\survival thriller template for something transcendent and modernist, the film is a very lean, mean, straightforward, no frills, brutal action\adventure film which rivets you at every point of its unfolding. Though I understand Co-writer and director, Ancken’s ambition in attempting an arty, modern twist to a generic plot, especially since this was a film that was going to be premiered at Toronto film festival, sometimes keeping things simple, basic and unpretentious is more appropriate; if you cannot pull off such a twist, then the whole film comes across as pretentious and prosaic (which it does), as opposed to lyrical and surrealistic that the filmmaker is aiming for. This is why the first two thirds of the film works so well: it’s such a superb exercise in pure cinema and minimalist visual storytelling, where the scenery and action defines plot & character. The most striking aspect of the film is its breathtaking & authentic locations and the mesmerizing cinematography that provides a true mythical and ethereal quality to the film. The film is photographed by the great DP, John Toll, who has been a regular collaborator for acclaimed filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Edward Zwick, Cameron Crowe and The Wachowskis. He won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in both 1994 and 1995 for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart respectively. He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Though he has worked across several genres, his strength is in capturing nature in all its harshness and majesty, and this gift for outdoor photography serves this film well.

In a Western, the backdrop – in which the story unfolds – is a character in themselves; the locations are also used to reflect the psychology of the characters, and this film is no different. The film starts in the highlands, where the mountains, the snow and the lush vegetation all but obscures the sky: there’s very little sunlight, with the characters dressed in all dark clothes emerging out of the darkness as if part of the nature itself. As the story progresses, the characters start making their way to the lowlands. There are hardly any sets used in the film: a spare homestead here, a railroad contraction site (made up of tents populated by White foremen and Chinese laborers) there is all there is. Though the film is set in post-civil war West, this could very well be a post-apocalyptic landscape where tough, brutal. scarred men fight it out it with nature, and one another, for survival. The final stretch of the film is played out in an otherworldly landscape where there is absolutely no sign of greenery: just a white sheet of sand that extends into infinity, on which the two characters appear like ghosts. By this time, both characters are completely devoid of their material possessions: Neeson has gotten rid of his dark clothes and appears in all white, while Bronson is without his huge woolen coat and appears in gray. It’s a stark visualization of the idea of men stripped down to their elemental state. Though the film’s tone may have changed rather drastically by the end (and not for the better), Toll’s photography has a consistent style and does the job of holding it all together. This gradual change in the color palette of the film complements the slow unravelling of the plot, characters and their motivations. In the first half of the film, the audience empathize with Bronson’s Gideon, because he’s the hunted, while Neeson’s carver is the ruthless hunter, and he also has a group of bounty hunters behind him. But as the story progresses, we realize Carver’s motivation for revenge, and Brosnan’s actions in the past. But still the narrative does not paint Brosnan as all-black, while we see that Carver’s obsession had turned him into a heartless monster; he doesn’t care whom he hurts or kills as long as its bring him close to his mortal enemy.

The film is also a broad allegory on the conflict between the ‘North’ and ‘South’ of the United States; the conflict that continues even today in one form or the other. Gideon is forced to hunt down ex-confederate officers even after the war. this leads to the death of Carver’s family. When Gideon asks his fellow officers why nobody told him there were children in the house before burning it down, their straightforward answer is “They’re Rebs.”- which explains that end of civil war did not mean cessation of hostilities. Then Carver bands together a group of men – men who are only driven by the money that he’s paying them (and eventually, none of them would make out of it alive) – to hunt down Gideon. Through the course of the chase the people they come across are a cross-section of the displaced, post-civil war American society: lone homesteaders, immigrants, railroad workers, a wagon train lost in the middle of nowhere lead by a mad preacher, a band of outlaws, mystical native traders, snake oil salespersons etc. By the end, only Carver and Gideon are left- staring at each other across a desolate landscape. The last twenty minutes or so sees Carver and Gideon taking turns in playing the hunter and the hunted, until they reach some kind of an uneasy truce; or maybe they’re already dead: the film does hint that maybe both died fighting each other, and the final section of the film represents their afterlife, and it’s only there that the two have a reconciliation. And just like at the beginning, where it appears that the two emerged out of nature itself, the final scene shows them getting absorbed into the very natural landscape from which they came from. Indeed, it’s too literal and over-the-top in its symbolism, and I wish Ancken had found a more subtle device to convey these themes. I also wish he had not revealed the backstory of these characters, and kept the reasons for the feud ambiguous. Not only that it adds to the film’s mystical power, but the flashback portion is the worst part of the film. I don’t know whether it was directed by some dumb second unit director, but the staging and the performances of the actors are so bad: Brosnan and his soldiers behave like total idiots. It’s as if the quality of filmmaking mirrors the progression of the story: the quality remain high as long as the story was set on the highlands, but as the story approaches the flatlands, the filmmaking also flattens out; the drama loses its visceral power, as it segues into metaphysical musings.

Both Neeson and Brosnan are solid in their respective roles. Though neither of them is called upon to perform any big histrionics; they’re just required to embody a certain archetype. Though the burly Neeson is the more physical actor of the two, it’s Brosnan who is called upon to give a more physical performance here: he hunts with a knife, gets shot, falls into freezing waters, climbs up a tree, and is more or less on foot for most of the duration of the film. Neeson – except for the brief flashback scene where he is called upon to explode while witnessing the death of his family – is controlled, laconic and taciturn; he mainly rides horses and shoots down people, though underneath it all he manages to convey a psychotic edge to his obsession. It’s odd to see two Irishmen leading a Western, but i guess there were a lot of Irishmen fighting in the civil war at the time. Western veteran, Ed Lauter turns up as Parsons, while Tom Noonan makes an appearance as a frightening minister with his clan out in the middle of nowhere. And for a change, Michael Wincott is not the most evil guy in the film; it’s to Neeson’s credit that he manages to out-evil even Wincott. It’s also nice to see both Wes Studi and Anjelica Huston, but their roles feels forced into the narrative. Harry Gregson-Williams provides an appropriately mystical score which is in keeping with the mood of the film.

The film was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Entertainment, and though it received pretty good reviews on its release, it failed completely at the box office: taking in just about a million dollars worldwide against an $18 million budget; which is truly shocking. I can understand that the popularity of Westerns had waned considerably by the new millennium, but I cant believe that the film didn’t find favor with at least a section of the audience which likes tough action\adventure films; it had ‘James Bond’ Pierce Brosnan for god’s sake alongside Liam Neeson. But so unpredictable is the box office fate of movies. Maybe it was marketed poorly by the studios, dumping it into theatres in January; maybe the film would have done better if it was made and released in Neeson’s post-Taken phase. I wish at least the Academy had taken note of its visual virtuosity and nominated John Toll for an Oscar; tough luck there too. Nevertheless, this is a good Western, or rather its a good hybrid of Western, chase movie and Survival thriller, and though it misses greatness due to some wrong choices made by the filmmakers in the final act of the film, it’s still an eminently watchable film, mainly for its stars and its visual beauty.


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