This terse, grueling chase film shot against the punishing landscapes of New Mexico feels like a throwback to something from the early 1970s - though it's set a century before that, in the aftermath of the American civil war.
Liam Neeson is Carver, a Confederate veteran and paymaster to a party of three hired guns hard on the trail of Pierce Brosnan's former Union captain Gideon for reasons that aren't immediately explained.
What is clear is that he means business: 'Let him bleed,' he seethes, twice, right at the off, after Gideon's been clipped by a long-range rifle shot.
This is just the beginning of Gideon's long ordeal. Soon he's shooting icy rapids and plunging down a waterfall. He survives, of course, but remains exposed to the freezing temperatures as well as his relentless pursuers in the middle of nowhere - and without a horse!
A big grunter at the best of times, Brosnan huffs and puffs his way through some stunning scenery on two legs and four, gradually evening the odds as he does so. Meanwhile Neeson scowls and spits, and seems unimpressed with his depleting posse: Michael Wincott, Ed Lauter, and John Robinson.
Co-written and directed by David Von Ancken, whose previous work includes stints on CSI, The Shield and Oz, Seraphim Falls pares everything back to its barest essentials: a man running from his past, chased by another man bent on revenge. Dialogue is scarce even on the few occasions when Gideon does cross paths with other human beings (notably Tom Noonan as a Minister, Xander Berkeley as a railway foreman, and Wes Studi as a quizzical Indian).
In fact it's almost as spare a piece of storytelling as producer Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. But where Gibson piled on the brutalism (to fairly gripping effect), Von Ancken chooses to slacken off the reins and let the film drift into the biblical allegory hinted at by its title. We even get Angelica Huston as a snake oil saleswoman in the middle of a purgatorial desert; she's credited as Madame Louise C Fair (say it fast); it's pretty clear she's the Devil by another name.
When I interviewed Liam Neeson a little white ago he was anxious to know what I thought of the ending (don't worry, I'll steer clear of spoilers here). It was something they talked about every night on the shoot, he said. He was still in two minds about it himself.
I've seen the film twice now, and the first time the last 15 minutes or so did feel like a slog. But I suspect the problem is not so much with the trippy last reel - which at least has the virtue of 'strange' - but the repetitive and sprawling mid-section, which really should have been much tighter. At 90 minutes this might have been a cult film on the strength of its two formidable leading men, the spectacular use of landscape (DP John Toll shot The Thin Red Line and Braveheart) and the stark intensity of its ideas. But at just five minutes shy of two hours it feels dramatically over-stretched.
I'd still recommend Seraphim Falls to Western fans for its curiosity value - we have to take what we can get - and to Brosnan fans on the strength of the exciting first Act.
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