"Seraphim Falls" comes from Mel Gibson's company, Icon Productions, but it's so creatively and consistently violent you'd think Gibson himself directed it, too. (He didn't it's actually the workmanlike feature debut from longtime TV director David Von Ancken, who co-wrote the script with Abby Everett Jaques.)
This technically solid but dramatically unremarkable Western finds Liam Neeson chasing Pierce Brosnan through the snow-covered mountains and across the blinding desert after the Civil War, seeking revenge for an offense that isn't revealed until nearly the end. (While the narrative structure is clever, it also depletes the film of context and necessary heft until it's too late.)
Along the way, characters are shot, stabbed, pierced through the skull, whacked in the face, sent plummeting down a waterfall and nearly frostbitten. Oh, and a horse gets disemboweled. Presumably this is why they called it the Wild West.
But it's all photographed with bleak, widescreen beauty by John Toll, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Gibson's "Braveheart."
Also looking great is Brosnan, almost unrecognizable beneath a scruffy, salt-and-pepper beard and tanned, weathered visage as Gideon, a former Union Army captain. He successfully began to dispel his polished James Bond image as a miserable hit man in 2005's "The Matador"; here, he hops in the saddle and tramples over it.
The first time we see Gideon, he's by himself in the snowy woods, where he takes a gunshot to the arm with manly stoicism; later, on the run from his pursuers and soaking wet from his waterfall dip, he strips off his shirt in the freezing cold, dips his knife into a campfire to sterilize it, then plucks the slug from his skin and cauterizes the wound with the flat side of the blade. (Von Ancken's camera doesn't flinch; Gideon does only slightly.)
Neeson's Col. Morsman Carver, formerly of the Confederate Army, is on his tail with a grudge to settle.
Accompanying him is a posse of men with whom he barely gets along, and whose numbers dwindle as the film progresses. (Some of them fall victim to Gideon's MacGyver-like craftiness.)
"There might have been a man rode through here tall, don't talk much," Carver asks strangers in pursuit of his prey. And nearly everyone he and Gideon run into during the protracted chase initially appears pure or spiritual in some way, but ultimately they all turn out to be hustlers or hucksters.
Among them is Anjelica Huston, who shows up out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, selling cure-all and offering unsolicited philosophical advice, along with some much-needed ammo. Then again, she might be an hallucination in her horse-drawn carriage, dressed in red and dripping with honey; either way, she's a hoot.
Von Ancken maintains a steady pace throughout, until there's nothing and no one left but these two men, mano a mano on the desert floor. Apart from one other, each suffered nightmare flashbacks to the event that binds them; here, they can do nothing but face what happened. -->
Their climactic confrontation is visually arresting in its starkness. But as an anti-war statement, a call to lay down arms that's clearly intended to be relevant today, it's a bit too clunky in its literalism.
"Seraphim Falls" is rated R for violence and brief language. Running time: 117 minutes.
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