Seraphim Falls begins with a bang. Literally, as a cowboy camped in the wintry Western mountains is shot in the arm by a faraway rifle. Abandoning both horse and weapons, he flees the campsite. This touches off a 20-minute, nearly wordless chase sequence in which former Union officer Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) tumbles down mountainsides, washes over waterfalls and basically does every damned dangerous thing he can to avoid a vengeful Confederate soldier named Carver (Liam Neeson) and his gang of gun-toting toughs.
Shot right here in New Mexico, Seraphim Falls is a primal, tight-lipped Western that borrows liberally from all manner of “chase pictures,” a genre that extends from 1932’s World’s Most Dangerous Game to 1966’s Naked Prey to 1981’s Death Hunt (also shot here in New Mexico) to Mel Gibson’s recent Apocalypto (not to mention all those “Coyote and Roadrunner” cartoons). Longtime TV director David von Ancken turns first-time feature writer/director, demonstrating some interesting skills along the way, but failing to make the entire project gel quite right.
The story proceeds in a linear fashion, barely pausing to give its characters names. Liam Neeson’s character wants very very much to kill Pierce Brosnan’s character, and that’s pretty much all we need to know. The action is handled breathlessly, with bloody deaths and impossible obstacles cropping up every few minutes. It’s exciting, its occasionally brutal, but it’s not terribly deep. Eventually, a single, crucial, long-awaited flashback puts everything in perspective, providing an expected but slightly interesting twist to the proceedings. Then, it’s back to the chase.
The film is shot beautifully, utilizing a vast array of New Mexico’s harsh landscapes--from the snowy, pine-covered mountaintops to the dusty, scrub-filled flatlands. The dark greens of the forest trees transition well to the searing blues of the desert skies thanks to some consistent cinematography (courtesy of Oscar-winner John Toll) that dwells on deep black shadows and heavy contrasts. This is the sort of dark, modern Western that winds more through Peckinpah territory than Ford country.
So long as the momentum keeps up, the film races along in lean, muscular and admirably sparse action film mode. Brosnan and Neeson aren’t given terribly deep characters to work with, but their intent scowls are given a good workout. Unfortunately, this old-fashioned, non-metaphorical tale of Wild West revenge surrenders to some rinky-dink, grade-school symbolism in the final reel. Stripped of all but a single bullet apiece, Gideon and Carver continue to stalk one another single-mindedly through an arid, semi-mystical wasteland, stranding us with a rather obvious moral about how revenge is bad and we should all just learn to get along. (At least Anjelica Huston does us the final act favor of not overacting her corny Angel Heart-inspired cameo.)
A post-Civil War action film peeled back to its raw and bloody bones, Seraphim Falls is beautifully and excitingly lensed. But, admirable as its Spartan premise might be, the film ends up denuded of the drama necessary to make audiences actually care whether its characters live or die. If you’re not rooting for either the Roadrunner or the Coyote, all you’re left with is a lot of frantic action and that quiet, dusty “boom” at the bottom of the canyon.