Seraphim Falls

Ballad Of Carver And Gideon

It’s no secret that I love Westerns. I inherited my love of movies from my Dad, and he loved Westerns, so I suppose it’s no surprise really. I’ve decided to run a bit of a theme here at 5Word, and revisit some of my favourites. This might be sporadic, or it might be all at once. We’ll just have to see…

First up: Seraphim Falls

It is a general rule in my eyes that Westerns are the most beautifully shot of all films, particularly the “roaming the wild country” type, where the scenery is as vital a character as any played by an actor. If you don’t believe me, go and slap yourself in the face and then watch anything by John Ford. I’ll wait here for your apology. Anyway, Seraphim Falls is no exception to that rule. John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line) is not a cameraman, he’s a poet.

On the surface, Seraphim Falls is a chase movie. Liam Neeson’s Carver and his expendable posse are hunting Pierce Brosnan’s Gideon across New Mexico from the snow-covered mountains through the desert lowlands to the dry lake beds. There’s a cruelty to this hunt though. Carver doesn’t just want to catch Gideon; he wants to hurt him. He wants to make him suffer. Carver is happy enough for his hired hands to shoot their prey, but warns them “If you kill him, you don’t get paid. Extremities only.” This is about revenge. The history between these men is hinted at repeatedly in vague flashbacks, flickers of memory (fire, horses, a screaming woman) that don’t really tell you anything until you’re fully invested and you think you’ve got your sympathies aligned right. When the revelation comes, it is powerful stuff.

The word revelation is somewhat appropriate, because under the surface Seraphim Falls is almost Biblical in its portrait of these two men’s descent into Hell (although Purgatory might be more accurate). The title of the movie is the name of one of the character’s homes and the setting for the event that threw these men together, but it is also the story itself, boiled down to its simplest form. If you’ll forgive me going all high-brow here for a second, the Seraphim are the angels which are considered to be closest to God, and burn with a cleansing fire. Thomas Aquinas (in his Summa Theologiae) described them as having “movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.” Carver and Gideon are moving continuously, but it is both literally and metaphorically downwards, and they are borne inflexibly not to God but towards each other. They are the Seraphim, and this is their fall.

Pierce Brosnan, unshaven and unwashed, is almost unrecognisable from his Bond days. He’s more like a Civil War Rambo than anything else; all haunted eyes and animalistic howls (even the ever-present Big Damn Knife). He spends the first 20 minutes entirely alone and without speech. Director and co-writer David Von Ancken clearly subscribes to the “show, don’t tell” school. There is not one word wasted in the whole film.

If they ever actually make another Terminator flick, I vote Liam Neeson for the part. As the unstoppable, implacable, ruthless pursuer he has found his niche. Catching Gideon is Carver’s only purpose in life and he completely sells it. The man only exists for this chase, and even he knows that once it is done he will cease to be.

Now for the elephant in the room. The last 15 minutes or so features a massive tonal shift as the subtext becomes text; the metaphor comes right out into the open. There is a scene where Carver and Gideon meet and fight, but Gideon gets the better of him and moves on. He comes over a ridge and meets a man by a stream. The man demands payment for his water before Gideon can pass. In the credits, this man is named as Charon. Yeah. Although, in Von Ancken’s defence, what the hell else could they have called him? Steve? And then there’s Anjelica Huston as Madame Louise, a travelling snakeoil merchant who appears out of nowhere and happens to have just what each man needs to continue the hunt, but the cost is what he needs to survive. Is she the devil himself? Are they already dead? While not stated explicitly, it’s certainly a valid reading.

You could believe that Seraphim Falls is an adaptation of some epic poem from the Civil War era itself. As a debut feature, it is impressive. Personally I really enjoyed it. I think the ending works although I know some who think otherwise. I can’t imagine any other way to finish the Ballad Of Carver And Gideon that wouldn’t seem pat or easy. Anyway, watch it yourself. Let me know what you think.

One comment

  1. Mark Walker · March 17, 2012

    Great, and insightful, review man. I actually liked this film aswell. I didnt expect to but it had a depth that surprised me.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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