Seraphim Falls at the Final Hurdle
Whilst I could see Liam Neeson in a western the thought of Pierce Brosnan playing some sort of cowboy just didn't work. Ironically Pierce Brosnan's performance is one of the positives of "Seraphim Falls", a modern version of a revenge western which tries to take a traditional idea and add more depth and mystery to it. On one hand it works because the update of a group of men hunting down another in search of vengeance has a real edge to it, an unrefined rawness and brutality which grabs your attention. But sadly on the other hand the attempt to add depth to this traditional storyline with what is religious symbolism ends up clouding things, spoiling what would have been a solidly entertaining modern western and causes "Seraphim Falls" to fall at the final hurdle.
High up in the snowy mountains a man called Gideon (Pierce Brosnan - Dante's Peak) gets shot in the arm, the shooter is a man called Carver (Liam Neeson - Batman Begins) who along with his men are hunting Gideon down. Why? Well that will be revealed as Gideon goes on the run through snowy mountains, icy rivers and sun baked deserts the whole time Carver and his men are relentlessly in pursuit forcing Gideon to try and out wit his pursuers and if he can't outwit them kill them one by one.
For those who have watched their fair share of westerns will spot the storyline straight away, we have a man, a fugitive being hunted down by another man and his group of trackers and hired guns. It doesn't take long to discover that it is personal and this is a revenge movie as Carver relentlessly follows Gideon over snowy mountains and sun baked deserts. Why he's so relentless in his hunt, well that is part of the mystery, a mystery which to be honest is not the surprising, well something similar has been used in more than a handful of older westerns. But it works because whilst you can guess that it is a personal pain which leads Carver to be so focussed on getting Gideon the exact reasons don't reveal themselves immediately.
Now this side could have been quite boring, working through an old western cliche, except director David Von Ancken delivers "Seraphim Falls" in a slightly different style. For the first 20 minutes or so there is barely an interchange of dialogue as we watch Carver and his men almost capture Gideon high up in the snowy mountains. And as we watch Gideon go on the run, granting, wheezing, sweating and falling down the snowy slopes makes for almost a raw movie. That rawness continues through out because whilst there are big scenes such as Gideon escaping down a freezing river or coming across a mountain shack they are not glossy affairs, they are unrefined. It gives "Seraphim Falls" a different feel to what you expect.
And adding to that different feel is the brutality of it all as Gideon has to start defending himself, taking out Carver's men one by one. The violence and deaths we witness are not what you expect to see in a western, they are graphic and disturbing, at times bordering on the disgusting. Something such as Gideon dealing with a bullet in his arm is so visual that it knocks you back and that is just one of the more minor visual moments in a movie with a long list of real yet graphic scenes.
Making this all work are two very good performances from Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson, although the supporting cast which includes Ed Lauter and Micheal Wincott are just as good. Whilst it may sound like bad casting, Pierce Brosnan as Gideon is actually quite good, maybe because he is playing what is basically a fugitive, a man on the run and so we don't have what you could say are cliche cowboy moments that it works, but he makes him interesting, a bit mysterious but seriously deadly. Liam Neeson is just as good as Carver as while delivering that element of being relentless in his need to get kill Gideon he also delivers the aspect of a man whose life has been torn apart, that something is missing from deep with in. But what is interesting is that the dynamics are different to a normal western as you are not sure who to side with, there is good and bad in both these characters and it constantly causes you to shift between who you are favouring.
All of which is good and if that was all there was to "Seraphim Falls" then it would have ended up a decent modern take on an old western theme. But that's not all there is and in trying to give things more depth and make it more intellectual things go seriously wrong with a lot of religious symbolism. Actually for 75% of the movie the religious symbolism and extra depth isn't an issue, it doesn't cloud the revenge story but then we get an ending which is so wrong, so very wrong. Oh it's clever with a nice performance from Anjelica Huston but it's not what you expect from a western and borders on the surreal that it simply spoils the rawness of what went before.
What this all boils down to is that up to a point "Seraphim Falls" is an enjoyable modern take on an old western idea. It maybe a little obvious as we have this revenge theme of Carver hunting down Gideon but it works by making it feel raw, unrefined and surprisingly graphic when it comes to the violence. But it is spoilt by an ending which tries to turn what is a solid story into something more intellectual with what feels seriously surreal, or at least surreal in the confines of a western.