Vast, impenetrable reams of aphoristic waffle are spouted by the characters in “Salt and Fire,” but minutes from the end of Werner Herzog’s thoroughly peculiar new narrative outing, the protagonist finally, plainly speaks for the audience. “Are you kidding me?” she yells — in bewildered response to the last of several random story swerves in the film, though it’s tempting to imagine the camera simply caught actress Veronica Ferres’s spontaneous reaction to the bonkers script. Either way, by this point, she’s only half as perplexed as most viewers will be by this awkwardly shoehorned fusion of ecological thriller, ideological romance and meditative landscape ode — only the last mode of which appears to have the veteran auteur’s full attention.
It’s no surprise, given Herzog’s recent dedication to the documentary form, that Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats should emerge as the true star of “Salt and Fire,” despite the earnest efforts of Ferres and Michael Shannon. As in 2009’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” the latter proves he has a measure of the gonzo intensity that once made Herzog and Klaus Kinski kindred spirits, though the late, tortured German thesp never had to wrestle with material quite this ragged. Immediately preceding Herzog’s inert, long-languishing Nicole Kidman vehicle “Queen of the Desert” in U.S. theaters — despite quietly premiering a year later on the festival circuit — “Salt and Fire” likewise does little to suggest the helmer’s hiatus from narrative filmmaking between 2009 and 2015 was a restorative one.
Even the virtues of both films are ones more satisfyingly expanded in his recent nonfiction work: a poetic engagement with the physical world, articulated in the director’s singularly eccentric rhetoric. When Shannon’s corporate mystic figure goes off on a loopy cod-philosophical rant (“Is it possible there’s something all-pervading around us that your data can’t analyze, that only prophets and birds can express?”), it’s no slight to the actor to say such plum-purple nonsense would sound slightly more persuasive in Herzog’s characteristically halting Teutonic tones.
Well before proceedings turn quite so florid, however, the first third of “Salt and Fire” unspools on surprisingly straightforward genre terms, setting viewers up for a mundanely efficient hostage drama — right down to the done-to-death ploy of opening mid-crisis before a mostly redundant “this is how we got here” flashback. Environmental scientist Prof. Laura Somerfeld (Ferres) is called to Bolivia on a high-stakes U.N. research mission, concerning the ecological disaster of a parched lake swallowed by “El Diablo Blanco,” a rapidly expanding salt flat. Joining her are two male colleagues (Volker Zack Michalowski and a neurotically mugging Gael Garcia Bernal) so extraneous to proceedings that even the film tires of them halfway through, sidelining the men with a grisly case of diarrhea. Points for redressing decades of cinematic gender imblance, then, if not for tidiness of storytelling.
Once they arrive at a strangely deserted airport, viewers will pick up that an abduction is under way even before the black balaclavas and machine guns are whipped out. Herzog stages key moments of tensions and panic with some of his old urgency, even as his script — adapted from Tom Bissell’s short story “Aral” — remains stubbornly pedantic, laden with lumpy exposition (of the “are you not blessed with a beautiful eight-year-old daughter” variety) and self-evident exclamations. “So this was all a plan from the beginning!” Somerfeld cries, not exactly making excessive demands on her professorial smarts.
Less obvious is the precise motivation behind the kidnapping, information that grows only more elusive once the intervention’s mastermind, Matt Riley (Shannon), reveals himself. A shadowy but supposedly seductive CEO of a consortium known, helpfully enough, as The Consortium, his tangled explanation of the situation only carries the film into a radically contrasting second act. Politics and life-or-death practicalities fall by the wayside as Riley and a curiously rapt Somerfeld engage in a grandiloquent verbal volleyball match on matters of love, communication and anamorphic art.
This mealy-mouthed mini-chamber piece is mercifully short-lived; hazy near-dream logic dictates a segue into spartan survival drama, with Somerfeld stranded in El Diablo Blanco with two winsome Bolivian boys for company. Only in this baffling but beautiful interlude does “Salt and Fire” achieve a kind of grace, thanks largely to cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s understandable love affair with the sweeping, swan-white, naturally tessellated expanses of the salt flats; Ferre’s performance, hitherto stiff and flustered, gains an earthier physicality in line with her bleakly rapturous surroundings. (Even Ernst Reijseger’s quivering score, parts of which sound like they’ve been played on a single squeaky floorboard, relaxes in the salty, sunny glow.)
Just as the film appears to drawing to a strange, peacefully elemental close, however, Herzog breaks the silence with a manic reveal that is somehow ludicrous and anticlimactic at once. This most defiantly rule-resistant of filmmakers certainly hasn’t lost his capacity to surprise. “Salt and Fire’s” punchline, however, only enhances the sense of a shaggy-dog tale dashed off on the back of a postcard — it’s the scenery on the other side that holds our attention.