Seraphim Falls

Director: David Von Ancken  
Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott

In the more than fifteen years I have been running and maintaining this movie review web site, I have been like a certain Clint Eastwood spaghetti western and shown you the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of the good things I have shown you have included movies from PM Entertainment and spaghetti westerns. Some of the bad things I have revealed have included movies by Albert Pyun, as well as various modern day family flicks. As for the ugly, there's one kind of cinematic ugliness that rears its head every so often on my web site, and that happens to be Canadian movies that were funded with taxpayers' dollars. My constant harping about the awfulness of these movies has received some notice from The Powers That Be. I know, because I hear mysterious clicks when I'm talking on the telephone, or see shadowy figures following me around town. But so far, I have managed to keep ahead of whatever government agency is tracking me. You see, I have come across plenty of fictional stories that involve people being pursued, so I know various tricks to keep them off my back. All sorts of stories have aided me, even stories that I first heard many years ago. Recently, my family told me to go visit an elderly bedridden relative in my neighborhood. During my journey there, a mysterious stranger in a fur coat I was passing asked me where I was going. I knew too well that I shouldn't tell anyone where I was going, so I ignored him. Continuing my path to my relative's house, I made sure to take the shortest route possible. Why should I take a longer route? It's not like I wanted to avoid my relative, and I didn't need the extra exercise. When I got to my relative's home, I made sure to put on my glasses so I would know for sure I was meeting her and not someone in disguise who wanted to do me some kind of harm.

Being that I live and work in an urban area of significant size, I make sure to observe and take down notes whenever I watch in a movie one of many examples of people being pursued in an urban environment. For example, one time when there was a car parked outside my apartment building with a couple of suits inside that were clearly packing heat, I remembered something from an otherwise long forgotten film I had seen. Following the movie, I made an anonymous phone call to the police to inform them that armed men loitering around. When the police arrived and took the men into temporary custody, I slipped out of my building and escaped. So even though I may be on some secret government list, I manage to keep one step ahead as I live my life in my city. At the same time, however, I realize that I can't be absolutely sure what new environment I might find myself in during the future. So I also carefully observe movies with protagonists in various sticky situations outside of an urban area. Though I haven't been to the wilderness for quite some time, I am reasonably confident that I would be able to prevail if there I found myself pursued by those same people in my city. I've learned from many movies various wilderness survival tips. For example, I know that if you are lost in the wilderness, find a stream or a river, and follow it downstream until you reach civilization. Another emergency action I know what to execute is if I was being pursued and I found myself at the edge of a cliff. Thanks to the movie First Blood, I know what to do - I would jump off the cliff and let the trees below cushion my fall, and I would only get at worst a few scratches by the experience.

I'll now put all kidding aside and directly get to the subject matter I've been getting to. One genre of movie that I found very enjoyable over the years is the "pursuit" movie, where individuals are pursued by villains across a wide playing field, usually in the wilderness. Most of these movies Seraphim Fallsprobably got their inspiration from the 1924 Richard Connell short story The Most Dangerous Game. Whatever the inspiration, I usually enjoy these movies to some degree. I find it exciting to see people pushed to their limits in a unhelpful environment, relying on their wits to get out of the situation. If they can prevail, then there's hope for poor old me in any situation. This explains in part why I was attracted to Seraphim Falls, because it's a movie that uses the "pursuit" plot. Another reason was that the movie promised to use the plot in the western genre, and I like westerns. A third reason was the cast, which included Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson. Despite the cast, the movie was barely released to theaters, which intrigued me. Was there a problem with the quality of the movie? I decided to buy the movie and find out. The events of Seraphim Falls take place in 1868, three years after the American Civil War has ended. Captain Gideon (Brosnan, Goldeneye), a former member of the Union army, has travelled west and is now living the life of a mountain man high upon the snowy Ruby Mountains of Nevada. One day, as Gideon is going about his business, several shots suddenly ring out, and Gideon is hit by one of the bullets. Despite being wounded, Gideon manages to stumble away from the area. In short order, we find out who fired those bullets, a band of five men lead by one Colonel Carver (Neeson, Taken), a former member of the Confederate army. Soon it is revealed that Carver has some kind of grudge against Gideon, and is determined to capture him and make him suffer before killing him. But despite being wounded, Gideon proves to be a tough opponent, and manages to keep ahead of Carver and his men. But for how long can Gideon hold out?

This plot description of Seraphim Falls may sound familiar to many of you reading this. Certainly, The Most Dangerous Game has been ripped off many times before in motion pictures, but the whole "secret grudge that is eventually revealed late in the movie" plot device has been used a lot as well. So clearly not everything in this movie is original. However, the movie does manage to surprise the audience in several ways that does give the movie the feeling of freshness. One of these ways is with the acting by the players. When you sit down to watch a knockoff of The Most Dangerous Game, the acting is usually standard at best, but the "A" list stars and the supporting players here give it their all. The actor who stands out the most is Brosnan. He is given a great challenge for the movie's opening thirty minutes: to make a compelling and sympathetic character despite only being given seven words of dialogue in those thirty minutes. He manages to do this by physically showing us the torment he is going through as he stumbles down the mountain away from his pursuers. Whether he's going through the early stages of hypothermia, or struggling to remove the bullet that's lodged in his shoulder, it's clear that he is in great pain. And even though it's just the beginning of the movie, I have to admit that his struggles made me wonder if he was going to survive past this opening portion. Later in the movie, once this character has (mostly) overcome his earlier torment, Brosnan now has to play someone who is smart enough to overcome new challenges, not just those involving his pursuers - and remain sympathetic. From this point on, Brosnan gives his character a weariness, one that shows he is not wanting to fight back or challenge anyone, but will if he is pushed. And it works - I liked this character, even when it's later revealed that he is not without guilt.

By the way, in case you are wondering, Brosnan deals with his accent by speaking with a somewhat hoarse voice. It doesn't always work, but these slips didn't concern me that much - he otherwise made his character compelling. So did Neeson. Unlike many B movies that have followed the same basic plot, Neeson does not play his role over the top. For the most part he plays his character as cool and collected. Yes, we learn he had a painful experience in the past involving the character of Gideon, but that was three years ago. But yes, there is still some pain, and we see the determination and conviction in his eyes. He is a foe that you keep watching in order to try and get into his mind before his secret is revealed in a flashback. Other good performances in the movie include cult actor Ed Lauter (Death Wish 3) in a supporting role, as well as a weird cameo (more about that later) by Angelica Huston. However, it's not just the acting that make Seraphim Falls different than you are probably expecting. There is also some skilful work behind the camera as well. Music composer Harry Gregson-Williams provides an effective score not by being bombastic, but being very subtle. He seems to know that the action happening onscreen is compelling enough, and it doesn't need to be drowned by excess noise. Another way the events of the movie are well presented is due to the photography by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. The first part of the movie, taking place high in the snowy mountains, is presented in dark and dreary colors. There are even a few moments when the look of the movie is almost black and white. These miserable colors make the audience feel the cold and unwelcome atmosphere. Later, when the characters get down from the mountains, this new territory is introduced by the sudden appearance of a bright red sunset (a stunning moment.) Subsequently, the look of the movie is more colorful, but at the same time gives us a feeling of the inhospitable arid environment.

But the heart and main driving force of Seraphim Falls is not the interesting characters nor the look and sound of the entire enterprise. Most of the movie is one big chase and pursuit, and for the most part this area of the movie is well done. When Carver gets close to the fleeing Gideon, the movie is tense and very effective. However, co-writer and director David Von Ancken (who later produced the western TV series Hell On Wheels) clearly knew that making the movie a non-stop chase from beginning to end would be exhausting and unbelievable. Every so often, the chase takes a break for several minutes, with either Gideon or Carver having to stop to take care of either new business or a new problem that has just arisen. Not only do these scenes allow the audience to catch its breath, these scenes allow for some variety to be added to the pot, such as when each of the central characters stumble upon workers building a railroad. With the action and the occasional breaks in the action, the movie manages to be very engrossing - at least until the last twenty or so minutes. It's then that the movie starts to get very weird, with surreal sequences involving a Native American at a waterhole as well as when the mysterious figure Huston plays encounters both men. These scenes not only don't fit with the ninety or so minutes that played before, but they seem like very unnecessary padding. I think that if these scenes had been eliminated and the movie wrapped up around the ninety minute mark, we probably would have had an even better movie on our hands. Still, despite the disappointing last twenty minutes, Seraphim Falls does have enough positive stuff to make it worth your while. Even those who dislike westerns will probably enjoy it, since its heart is not a western epic but instead an effective chase movie.

(Posted June 24, 2014)

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See also: Overkill, Raw Courage, Survival Quest