Saturday, August 18, 2007

Film Review: Seraphim Falls

A Bewitching Western

I suppose like many others I have never really been a devotee of the Western genre of films except for those Spaghetti Westerns or any other such with good actors in them like Clint Eastwood. However, the recently released (here in Ireland that is) Seraphim Falls is a brilliant movie and a “must see” for all Western devotees and all good film lovers. I went to see this with my two friends and guests for the last week, Mathew Staunton and his wife Isa. We were all in agreement that this is indeed a splendid film. It keeps your interest the whole way through and you don’t feel the two hours passing.

This is film of epic dimensions magnificently filmed in the grand Western tradition. The cinematography is superb with bewitching scenes from the stunningly beautiful landscape of West Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico. It is a wildly beautiful and inhospitable land – I refer here, of course, to the cold and snowy mountain scenes and the later desert struggles of the two protagonists. It is also wonderful and unique I think that this Western features two marvellous international Irish actors, namely Liam Neeson (Carver in the film and the hunter) and Pierce Brosnan (Gideon in the film and the hunted). They are two enormous presences on the screen and bring this film to life with superb acting. For their acting alone this film is superb.

Unlike a lot of films in this genre, the script is superb and sparse. It was co-authored by Abbey Everett Jaques and David Von Ancken who was also its director. If you are a traditional fan of Westerns and are looking for shootouts and plots that can be boiled down to "good guys" and "bad guys" then you will be disappointed in Seraphim Falls. In fact like all good modern cinema (and indeed literature and drama) it subverts the expected tradition.

This film is a story about revenge. We are immediately introduced to the hunted (Brosnan) and the hunter (Neeson), the tracker and his quarry. However, the director does not allow us to know why exactly Carver is tracking Gideon. But, we know that Gideon must have done something horrific if Carver wishes to track him down. He has a single bullet in his jacket to remind him whom he must kill. However, the director calls the tracked or hunted man Gideon which is a Biblical name from a character who appears as a judge in The Book of Judges in the O.T. Gideon is also named in the Epistle to the Hebrews as an example of a man of faith. In this way we begin to wonder if our Gideon could really be that bad a person. However, the Biblical scholars among us will know that the name Gideon also means means "Destroyer", "Mighty warrior" or "Feller (of trees)".

On the other hand our hunter or tracker is called by his surname, Carver, which is distinctly non-Biblical. However, we see a stern, unmoving and indifferent side to Carver. We know he cannot be all that bad, as he is, after all, the hunter. However, there are traits in him we do not like – his coldness and indifference to the feelings of his paid fellow trackers, his shooting of an innocent horse leaving one of the trackers who deserts him in his quest to walk horseless to the nearest town which is miles away. Also Gideon is portrayed as friendly to the folk he comes upon in the mountain cabin. He treats both the young girl and the little boy well, pays for the horse which he takes, but is robbed during the night by the quiet little boy. Hence we have mixed feelings both towards the hunted and the hunter. Good and Bad or Good and Evil are not so clear in this film at all. I have commented on this as regards other films, especially as regards the just concluded series The Sopranos where we learn to like Tony even though we know he is a murderer. This is what I like about both modern cinema and modern novels - we are not presented with the traditional opposing forces of Good and Evil. Instead we get a mixing of both in almost every main protagonist or antagonist whom we meet through their media. This, as I have pointed out, is the subversion of accepted traditional principles.

A good film like a good novel or a good work of art should make the reader or viewer think. Seraphim Falls manages to do that. I liked especially the encounters both Gideon and Carver make with characters along the way. The encounter of Gideon with the cabin folk in the snowy mountain is realistically and tenderly portrayed. We see a tender side to our quarry and a mischievous side to the little boy. Then there are encounters with Irish and Chinese railroad builders, along with an interesting encounter with some bank robbers. These, we immediately see are selfish criminals, unlike Gideon who is neither selfish nor criminal. But what is his sin we ask? Yes he has sinned, as have we all if I may be permitted to sustain the metaphor. I won’t spoil the film by saying what has been the cause of Carver’s great anger against Gideon. However as the film goes on these encounters become more and more obscurely surreal; the final such encounter seems almost supernatural or fantastic.

Viewers will come to this film expecting a completely realist story; and that's what they seem to be getting at the beginning of the movie. You are not prepared for this realism to slowly and obscurely fall apart – and that may be the reason that the film creates such a powerful and somehow creepy experience by the end.

This is also a film about the “desert experience.” In symbolic terms, and equally in psychological terms, the pursuit through the desert is an outer portrayal of the inward struggle. We get the sense of both hunted and hunter being challenged by their consciences. It would seem that they each want to do the right thing. I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s powerful little play, Murder in the Cathedral where Tomas a Beckett says that he wishes to do the right thing for the right reason. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, while good as regards its result, is certainly not healing for the actor’s (in this case the protagonist’s) soul. Hence we have two marvellous surreal meetings by two, that is both Gideon and Carver meet the native Indian philosopher at the watering hole – this is very Biblical indeed, undertones of Jesus at the well here. Then they both meet Madame Louise Fair, the woman peddling tonics for good health.

The words spoken by the Indian philosopher, called Water Man in the script, are Zen-like quotations. Take this one, for example:

“Go as you wish.
That which is yours will always return to you.
That which you take will always be taken from you.”

Here we get the sense of the wise old man,one of Jung's archetypes, which really is the outer symbol of the conscience of our two protagonists. Then we meet Madame Louise Fair which is itself a pun on Lu-ci-fer, Satan or the fallen angel. Immediately we are reminded of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert and his temptation by the Devil. The conscience of both men, therefore, is offered both a good resolution to their internal conflict and a bad resolution to their struggle. Here’s a brief quote from the interaction between Gideon and Madame Louise Fair, who is brilliantly played by Anjelica Huston:

Madame Louise Fair: Spoken like a true sinner.
Gideon: Well, hell, don't matter much out here.
Madame Louise Fair: Man's got to do what a man's got to do, right?

I was also bewitched by the offbeat missionaries on pilgrimage through these desert regions. They were almost too welcoming of the strangers into their midst. Their innocence and purity make you almost think they belong to a band of lunatic musicians with a peace agenda. However, they also know how to entertain their guests with song and music (Irish Traditional Music at that) as well as some whiskey if my memory serves me well. Here is some of the dialogue between Hayes and Carver in the pilgrims’ camp:

Hayes: Reckon we ought to camp somewheres else?
Carver: Afraid the word of God will spoil your digestion?
Hayes: I never was much for scripture.
Carver: Nothing to fear, Mr. Hayes. Them's just words. Ain't no God out here.

Yet again we have the inner debate that’s going on in these men’s minds – Is there or isn’t there a God? Is there a right and just action or is there not? Is revenge right? The simplicity and pacifism of the pilgrims seem to suggest that revenge is very wrong indeed. They welcome all and do not judge. However, Carver finds that these now not-so-innocent pilgrims have emptied their guns of ammunition while they slept, but to our surprise he puts his hand in his pocket and takes out the one bullet which he knows is enough to dispatch his quarry from this world.

Another quote from Carver early in this film is interesting, and goes thus: “Nobody can protect nobody in this world.” I am here reminded of that beautiful song by Christy Dignam, “How can I protect you in this crazy world?” Maybe the answer is that we have to try to protect ourselves and then attempt to protect the ones we love. The film seems to suggest that such a protection of our loved ones is well nigh impossible. Maybe the real theme of this film is humankind’s inevitable contingency and his inevitable mortality. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that the powerful performances of both actors make such an ending credible at least. Finally just a few words of advice: - while viewing pay attention to the theme of loss, and how various possessions of the characters are lost.

To my mind, I’d score this film 10 out of 10.

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