Television director David Von Ancken's metaphorical revenge Western wears its influences on its sleeve, but adds nothing to the genre that hasn't already been explored in the quietly demythologizing films of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher, the baroque, operatic Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone and his less-familiar peers, Sam Fuller's deranged, post-Civil War psychodrama RUN OF THE ARROW (1956) and, most obviously, Clint Eastwood's THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976).
A parable of vengeance and the hope of redemption, the film opens mid-chase: The year is 1868, and the place Nevada's awe-inspiring Ruby Mountains. Grizzled Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) is the hare, and lean, ascetic Carver (Liam Neeson) is the hound, leading his pack — sadistic Hayes (Michael Wincott), wary Parsons (Ed Lauter), moonfaced Pope (Robert Baker) and the Kid (John Robinson) — up snowy mountains and down rocky valleys, up trees and into icy rivers, through woods and scrub and desert, garden and frontier... wherever Gideon leads. It began in Seraphim Falls beneath the shadow of the Civil War, in a scrum of thundering hooves and crackling flames that haunt both Gideon's and Carver's dreams, and it ends in a serene sea of sand. In between, Carver and his dwindling band of hired guns pursue Gideon across a brutal landscape dotted with desperados, exploited Chinese railroad workers and their bullying Irish overseers, religious cultists, vulnerable pioneers, hardscrabble loners and the bleached skeletons of Conestoga wagons, a bleak wasteland where "nobody can protect nobody" from anything, least of all the past. Both men are repeatedly and convincingly battered and bloodied; Gideon gains the upper hand, then cedes it back to Carver. Carver seizes the advantage and loses it time and again. The dynamic is pure, live-action coyote-versus-roadrunner except for the oppressive solemnity and the fact that Wile E. Coyote and the roadrunner never needed a traveling snake-oil saleswoman ex machina (Anjelica Huston) to underscore the existential nature of their unending conflict.
Von Ancken's sagebrush noodling might seem fresh to viewers who haven't seen many Westerns, and given that the genre's popularity peaked in the 1960s, its iconic characters, settings and oppositions aren't as ingrained in the popular consciousness as they once were. But ultimately, Carver and Gideon's absurdist vendetta seems schematic, and SERAPHIM FALLS is a pale shadow of Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), which finds grotesque, haunting poetry where Von Ancken sees only a shopworn message about the futility of revenge. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh