In "Seraphim Falls," a hugely absorbing period manhunt drama from first-time director David Von Ancken, Liam Neeson plays an embittered Southerner chasing former Union Army officer Pierce Brosnan all over kingdom come. Along the way, they bump up against hostile settlers, corrupt transcontinental railroad builders, traveling Jesus freaks, a medicinal elixir saleslady, a conniving water-hole guru and extreme climate conditions.
To call "Seraphim Falls" an old-style revenge Western, however, would be both redundant and a slight misnomer. Westerns have always concerned themselves with the settling of scores, be they between outlaws and sheriffs or Indians and interlopers. And the genre has become so obsolete in 2007, "Deadwood" notwithstanding, that its antiquated tropes can seem fresh, if not alien, to a new generation of BlackBerry cowboys.
As a boomer who revels in the capacious landscapes and vitriolic face-offs of Anthony Mann's 1950s Westerns, however, I heartily embraced "Seraphim Falls"' widescreen values, episodic structure and scrappy image makeover of two tall Irish sex symbols surviving the elements without a tuxedo or high-tech gadget in reach.
As the bearded and increasingly bedraggled Gideon, Brosnan is as far removed from his 007 glory as one could imagine. Adrift in the snowy wilderness Gideon is barbecuing a bird over an open fire when he is shot in the arm by a gang of bounty hunters, led by Col. Morsman Carver (Neeson).
Why? We don't know, but they are both haunted by fiery nightmares, and Carver is so hell-bent for Gideon's hide that he abandons any trace of humanity along the way. Gideon provides a formidable challenge, possessing the escape artistry of a Houdini and the survival skills of an eagle scout with an advanced degree from Johns Hopkins.
Von Ancken and his thoughtful co-writer Abby Everett Jaques pepper their standoff with a series of mythically tinged encounters that become more surreal as the film progresses, culminating with a cameo by Anjelica Huston as a hard-dealing medicine vendor whose angel-of-death grin masks an angel of redemption.
Where the script falls off is in the credulity of Carver's behavior. The writers do their best to demonize Neeson's character, but not even the traumatizing event that triggers his pursuit can entirely explain his depraved indifference to his hired hands.
Perhaps that's part of the filmmakers' point, which is that violence eventually reduces civilized people to their bestial instincts. It's certainly the reason for casting refined studs like Brosnan and Neeson: to behold the psychic and physical unraveling of the former James Bond and Oskar Schindler is to invoke memories of William Golding's proper English schoolchildren in "Lord of the Flies" as they descend into chaos.
Von Ancken and Jaques are not out to reinvent the wagon wheel so much as to re-examine the Western's relevance at a time of raging overseas civil war and polarization at home. You can, if you so choose, read the film as a lesson in the futility of violent conflict as a means toward a peaceful end. Or you can let it just wash over you, fast and pounding, like a waterfall.