Seraphim Falls” looks like something out of the ordinary solely by virtue of its rarity, but in 1956, it would have been a solid but unexceptional revenge Western. An unforgiving man’s relentless pursuit of a Civil War-era adversary is played out across a magnificent backdrop ranging from snow-packed mountains to the lifeless desert floor, and John Toll’s cinematography ensures the action is worth watching. Aside from spasms of brutal violence, however, there’s nothing rousing or new here; the names of well-cast leads Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan won’t be enough to muster more than modest theatrical B.O. for this very physical but familiar oater.
Familiarity is entirely relative, of course. A large share of today’s audience wasn’t born when the “recent” major film this most resembles, Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” was released 30 years ago. Nevertheless, little in the original script by David Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques is fresh, from the dramatic format to the simple psychology and motivations of the characters; from the men’s desire to say as few words as possible to the film’s message of forgiveness.
Long opening set-piece is a grabber. In Nevada’s Ruby Mountains in 1868 (except for the river rapids scenes, which were shot in Oregon, pic was entirely lensed in New Mexico), salt-and-pepper-bearded loner Gideon (Brosnan) is shot in the arm. Forced to abandon his horse and rifle, he tumbles down multiple snowbanks, falls into a frigid river, plummets over a waterfall and loses his heavy coat before extricating himself and excruciatingly removing the bullet with his outsized hunting knife and cauterizing the gaping wound.
With determined hunter Carver (Liam Neeson) and his four hired guns closing in, Gideon makes his way up a tall tree, from where, with expert aim, he manages to drop his knife smack into the forehead of one of his pursuers and then get away before the others find him, pausing only to cut the dead man’s belly open to warm his own frostbitten hand.
So off they go across the imposing landscape, Gideon staying a step or two ahead of his pursuers, who diminish in number along the way. There are intimations that Gideon committed some horrible atrocity that has provoked Carver’s undying hatred, but revelation of its specifics is saved for a climactic flashback.
In the meantime, Gideon shrewdly manages to turn adversity to his favor on several occasions, as he and his hunters cross paths with other humans, including a small pioneer family, fugitive bank robbers, a wagon train of the devout, railway workers, a cagey Indian trader and, saved to the end, Angelica Huston as a snake oil saleswoman wandering far from where she might find customers.
For what it is, pic goes on excessively, with one final showdown too many. Its physical beauty notwithstanding — Toll’s work, which emphasizes the blues and greens of the forests, is always a pleasure to behold — the film lacks a distinctive visual style, especially toward the end, when some hallucinatory heightening would have been in order. Gideon’s frequent physical pain is palpable, and the killings are gruesome, but this motif doesn’t translate into a feeling of pervasive harshness comparable to that found in, say, Anthony Mann’s frontier pictures, such as “The Naked Spur,” another film to which “Seraphim Falls” bears a passing resemblance.
For genre fans, however, a new Western is always welcome, and TV vet Von Ancken, in his theatrical feature debut, makes its way through some of the conventions with relative dexterity.
Of the two rugged Irish stars, Brosnan, for all his character’s discomfort, seems to be having the better time. His lankiness sometimes reminding of James Coburn, whose turn in “The Magnificent Seven” also comes to mind thanks to Gideon’s skill with a knife, Brosnan appears to relish his moments in the saddle as well as the gruff, minimal dialogue. For his part, Neeson also looks good out West but might have applied an extra edge of remorseless craftiness to his readings. (He also could have benefited from putting back the 20 pounds or more he appears to have lost of late).
As two of Carver’s henchmen, Michael Wincott and Ed Lauter are perfectly cast for menace and treachery but aren’t given enough to do make their roles indelible. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is solidly in the classical old-school tradition.