3½ stars (out of four)
"Seraphim Falls" is a movie some will relish and others will find a bit anachronistic. It's a violently exciting Western with a vision of the West that's grand, mythic and also full of near-surreal menace, starring two Irish-born leading actors, Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, who here often seem born to the saddle.
It's a tonic to see a picture like "Seraphim Falls." Movie westerns, which used to stampede through America's pop culture landscape like the old buffalo herds, have in the last three decades begun to seem as rare as flowers in the desert--despite the fact that the technical means for making them have never been as sharp. But "Falls'" director/co-writer, TV veteran David Von Ancken ("Cold Case") knows his Westerns--and this one has welcome suggestions of Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales," Anthony Mann and Sergio Leone's vendetta oaters and John Ford's "The Searchers."
The story, set right after the Civil War, is a hellacious chase-revenge saga involving an embittered ex-Confederate colonel, Carver (Neeson), relentlessly pursuing the ex-Yankee captain, Gideon (Brosnan), whom he blames for a wartime atrocity and tragedy. Their pursuit and battle begins in the mountains and passes through valleys and forests to the sun-baked desert--landscapes (mostly shot in New Mexico) packed with beautiful, dangerous sights and bizarre, sometimes deadly characters.
Von Ancken begins with brutal suddenness--a lyrical landscape dissolving into chaos--and then maintains a blistering clip. The bearded mountain-mannish Gideon is ambushed and shot by Carver's crew. Then, he races over the snow, plunges into rapids and over a waterfall and later, having eluded the posse, digs out the bullet with a cauterized knife, all the while howling and grunting with pain and the cold.
We pick up the chase before we're aware of who these men are or what either of them has done--and it quickly becomes a picaresque journey-adventure and duel, horrific and absurd. Gideon runs, hides and circles around. His pursuers keep coming on: Carver and his band of mercenaries, including the cynical Hayes (Michael Wincott), the grizzled Parsons ('70s mainstay Ed Lauter) and the callow Kid (John Robinson of Gus Van Sant's "Elephant").
From the posse's vantage point, Gideon begins to seem a nearly unkillable superman who keeps slipping out of their traps, while, to Gideon (and us), Carver seems a remorseless hunter who won't stop until he's dead. But we see Gideon differently almost from the start, as a very vulnerable if incredibly resourceful man, a step ahead of death. Gradually, we begin to accept the seemingly hard-case Carver as someone who's suffered hideously and is trying, in an echo of that first scene, to dig out a psychological bullet with a red-hot knife. "Seraphim Falls" is, in the end, an anti-war film, though that becomes apparent only gradually .
Brosnan and Neeson, playing irresistible force and immovable object, have a field day in these intensely physical parts. It may have helped that they come from Ireland, an island long bloodied by civil war--Neeson from the north and Brosnan from the south. Brosnan has the showier, sexier part; Gideon's bags of tricks and lightning reflexes at times suggest a sort of western James Bond. But Neeson gives the movie its darkened heart and twisted battered soul. With his huge monumental-looking frame and craggy face, he can command either fear or soulful empathy.
The actors in the posse and elsewhere, especially Wincott, give their parts some of the edge and bite of the Ben Johnsons and Walter Brennans of older eras. There's even a performance that reminds you of the more wicked side of Walter Huston: His granddaughter Anjelica shows up as a crafty snake oil saleswoman materializing like a hallucination in the desert. John Toll's windswept color cinematography of the New Mexico landscapes is--like his Oscar-winning work in "Braveheart" and "Legends of the Fall"--full of ravishing light and hues.
Sadly, people don't seem hungry for Westerns any more. Sometimes they're right. The recent "Flicka"--a formula modernization of "My Friend Flicka"--was a slick, soggy disgrace, and last year's best movie Western, "The Proposition," was set (and shot) in Australia. You could say that "Seraphim Falls," was no better than the typical Westerns of the 1950s and '60s--which I think underrates it. But those typical Westerns were pretty darn good, and so is "Seraphim Falls."
Directed by David Von Ancken; written by Von Ancken, Abby Everett Jaques; photographed by John Toll; edited by Conrad Buff; production designed by Michael Hanan; produced by Bruce Davey, David Flynn. A Samuel Goldwyn Films/Destination Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (for violence and brief language).
Carver - Liam Neeson
Gideon - Pierce Brosnan
Madame Louise - Anjelica Huston
Hayes - Michael Wincott
Parsons - Ed Lauter
Henry - Kevin J. O'Connor
Minister/Abraham - Tom Noonan
Kid - John RobinsonCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times