Thursday, 22 November 2012

Film Review: Seraphim Falls

As this was on the telly the other night, it seemed a good time to re-post this review of what is a fairly good western. It was originally published at:

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

'Seraphim Falls' (2006) was co-written as well as directed by David Von Ancken. Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan give the film a real bite of quality acting, in their respective portrayals of opposing duo Carver, a former Confederate officer, and Gideon, who fought for the Union.

The two are intimately connected by their respective parts in a terrible, but also unfortunate, atrocity committed at the end of the American Civil. Set in Nevada, three years after the end of the American Civil War, the film centres around the pursuit of Gideon by a posse led by Carver. The story is simplistic and enjoyably uncomplicated, though it is shaded by the back story of Neeson's motivation for his single-minded pursuit of Brosnan.

Captain Ahab & Clint Eastwood

It turns out that what turned Carver into this demented, laconic Ahab of the West was an act of post-Civuil War brutality committed in the name of the Union by troops under the command of Gideon, when Carver's family were burned to death.. By the time film ends, even the shocking nature of this atrocity pales in the hot white desert light of the feud between the two men.

This recent western was said at the time if its release to owe much to Clint Eastwood's 1970s classic 'The Outlaw Josie Wales'. However, with its desert journeys, flashbacks to fill in narrative gaps, its surrealism and its cynical violence, the movie owes much more to Eastwood's 1960s spaghetti westerns, and viewers will be reminded of some of 'The Good, the bad and the Ugly's desert scenes.

Although the narrative is uncomplicated, it is not shallow. Camera shots which rely on space and emptiness help convey the film's existential themes, the idea of man or men, against the unforgiving emptiness of nature and life.

The film references more Italian westerns than just Sergio Leone's work, however. There are hints of 'The Great Silence', both in Brosnan's gruff, almost inaudible portrayal of Gideon, and also in its early snowbound settings. The small child in the cabin in the mountains could almost be Loco the bounty killer as a child with his blonde hair and wide eyes, witnessing the trauma which set him on the road to violence.

The desert shots also recall the Almeria landscape used in many spaghetti westerns, and the individualistic, materialistic motivations and aims of the characters reflect the hard-bitten attitudes of many of the great Italian outings.

The use of colour in the film is evocative and effective. The dream-like transition from mountain to desert is handled with a dawn which drains all the colour from the landscape, leaving the characters moving through the landscape of a dream.

Cormac McCarty's 'Blood Meridian'

There is more dream-like surrealism too, recalling occasionally Cormac McCarthy's novel 'Blood Meridian' as characters spring out of the desert to strike existential bargains with Neeson and Brosnan. Anjelica Houston is a dark lady, appearing like death in her funeral wagon to barter for the essentials of life in the desert as the pursuit reaches its peak. Wes Studi turns in a typically high-quality performance as a wry Native American, dispensing dark desert wisdom along with his take-it-or-leave-it deals on water and horseflesh.

The baseness of the pursuit of Gideon by Carver is exemplified by the minimalist setting of the desert, its white spareness overcut with the panting grunts of the struggling duo, trying to outwit each other like some Old West Spy vs Spy, until the pursuit reaches its sudden denouement.

Revisionist Westerns

'Seraphim Falls' has been described as 'revisionist', an overused term which can often be used to cover inept and violent uses of what have become stereotypes every bit as much as the Hollywood staples they sought to replace in recent years. This film's cynical brutality is actually fresh and spare, sudden in its impact, despite the Hollywood action stereotypes of its opening sequences in the snow.

Certainly there is something of a twist to the traditional western ending in the film's conclusion, when a cliche is turned ninety degrees to the left when we are treated to two protagonists striding, or in this case, weaving, off into the white hot sun. Tthe knife, such a recurring iconic image in the film, the blade on which frontier existence rests, has been spiked in the ground. A hatchet buried, but it was all in the end for nothing, the war just men grubbily clawing at each other's faces in the dirt.

What we are left with is a sense of the uncomplicated nature of life when it is boiled down to its essence. But there is redemption in its conclusion too, and a sense that perhaps life's essential meaninglessness could also be humanity's salvation.

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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