Although both are Irish and they were born a mere year apart, the two stars of “Seraphim Falls” couldn’t be more different — Liam Neeson remains as ruggedly attractive as ever, while time has unfortunately not been as kind to his (slightly) younger costar, Pierce Brosnan.
A brooding, self-consciously weighty film, “Seraphim Falls” is an intriguing, ambiguous Western that is sure to challenge the loyalties and ethical presuppositions of its viewers. But as morally challenging as the film may (or may not) be, director and co-writer David Von Ancken still fails to offer anything new.
His plot of pursuit and retribution is far from original, and he adheres to the long-established vocabulary of the Western genre in an uninspired and literal way — the plot, scenery and dialogue are all rather minimalist, and “Seraphim Falls” is full of stereotypes and overly familiar tropes that make an already too-long film seem even longer.
For the first half of the film, the audience is sure to find itself rooting for the gruff, particularly terse (even for a cowboy) Civil War veteran Gideon, played by a heavily-bearded Pierce Brosnan.
The opening of “Seraphim Falls” follows Gideon as he stokes a fire and prepares to eat alone in the frigid peaks of a remote mountain range somewhere in the American West. But his peaceful, if solitary, subsistence is quickly interrupted by the piercing sound of gunshots, fired by his seemingly cruel pursuer Carver (Liam Neeson), who relentlessly seeks vengeance for a mysterious crime.
The rest of “Seraphim Falls” is little more than a cat-and-mouse game. The backstory that connects Gideon and Carver is sordid, tangled and uncovered extremely slowly. As each new bit of exposition is revealed, audience loyalties are sure to waver.
Both Gideon and Carver, as different as they may hope to be, are cast from the same archetypical Western mold — the lone, gruff yet surprisingly sensitive cowboy of few words. The film is rife with other classic, stock characters of the Western as well; on the run, Gideon stays with a solitary family living on the frontier (enter the tough but tender young woman) and encounters a gang of bandits fresh from a bank robbery, Mormon settlers traveling in covered wagons and laborers working on the transcontinental railroad. The most peculiar (though not necessarily original) encounter occurs when, nearing the end of their chase, both Gideon and Carver cross paths with two almost surreal characters, each offering slightly Satanic proposals: first, a slippery Indian trader smoking a peace pipe offers the men much-needed water; then, the witch-like Madame Louise Fair — played quite spiritedly by Anjelica Huston — peddles an alcoholic cure-all.
Although there is little in “Seraphim Falls” that has not been done before, it must be said that the cinematography is breathtaking — John Toll, who also shot “Braveheart” and “Legends of the Fall,” has captured the unbridled expansiveness of the American frontier with grandeur and majesty — and both Neeson’s and Brosnan’s performances are exceptional. Neeson’s screen presence is weighty and captivating, even though he hardly speaks, and Brosnan is fantastically effective in making viewers feel his pain — when he carves a bullet out of his bicep and then cauterizes the wound with his bloodied knife, he howls and hyperventilates (a far departure from the suave, seemingly indestructible Bond-days of his relative youth).
But for all of Neeson and Brosnan’s hard work, the film keeps its stoic heroes at too far a distance for viewers to ever make an emotional connection. There is a brief moment, in flashback, that humanizes Carver and makes it almost possible to relate or sympathize, but Von Ancken retreats again just as quickly. And when dealing with a tale as old and oft retold as one of the quest for retribution and revenge, the fact remains that (despite excellent performances and skillful cinematography) there is nothing interesting or innovative enough in “Seraphim Falls” to make it worth remembering.