Three years after the end of the American Civil War, two hearts still beat to the drums of war. Former Confederate colonel Carver (Liam Neeson) is driven by revenge. Former Union captain Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) is haunted by regret. But at night they share the same nightmares about what happened at Seraphim Falls …
High in the cold Rocky Mountains with trees, snow and sky for as far as his eyes can see, Gideon nestles by a modest fire and prepares to dine on a freshly caught rabbit. The first gunshot barely misses his face, but a second bullet burns deeply into his arm to lodge painfully between muscle and bone.
Carver has finally caught up to his prey, but not even the best trackers his money could buy can truly catch Gideon. Gideon resourcefully eludes Carver and his men, using the dangerous terrain (including a harrowing waterfall) to his advantage even as it works against him in ways that will make you cringe. What follows is an escape fraught with levels of peril, pain and ingenuity that would make Rambo nervous, and the physical/emotional dedication Brosnan pours into the film’s first 20 minutes adds up to some of the most powerful and believable acting he’s ever done.
As the film unfolds, we slowly learn more about the forces driving Carver and Gideon. And when the atrocity that happened at Seraphim Falls is finally revealed, your heart will break for both of them. Carver chases Gideon from that first frigid mountaintop and across lonely plains until they finally face fate and each each other in a harsh, sun-baked desert that’s every bit as desolate and barren as they’ve become inside. The final confrontation will not only determine who they are but also gauge just how far they’ve fallen from the men they were before the war.
Television veteran David Von Ancken wrote and directed Seraphim Falls with a script assist by Abby Everett Jaques. His storytelling style here is appropriately simple and lean, allowing his actors and locations to tell the story. Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) photographs both beautifully.
The film shares some visual and narrative similarities with the 1995 Australian Western The Proposition, though Von Ancken’s film boasts more heart and accessibility. The pace slows a bit after the magnificently exciting opening sequence, but the constant character drama keeps things interesting and unpredictable. The film even takes an unexpected detour into the surreal with the arrival of a traveling elixir vendor played with shifty zeal by Angelica Houston. Her delicate manipulations maneuver the men into their final confrontation, and if you look closely you’ll see that the name painted on her wagon is “Louise C. Fair.” Say that a few times fast and the purpose of her character will likely become clear.
Most noteworthy of the actors playing Carver’s trackers are Michael Wincott and Ed Lauter. Wincott’s gravelly rasp served him well as villains in such films as The Crow and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and he was particularly superb as a bored but casually cruel prison warden in the stellar 2002 adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Lauter’s instantly recognizable face has been seen in nearly 200 television and film appearances, and he and Wincott work really well together as a pair of guys who accepted this job solely for the money but become increasingly concerned — for their own sakes, of course — by Carver’s ever-deepening obsession.
Whereas Wincott’s best asset is his voice, Lauter’s eyes and facial expressions do plenty of talking. Genre fans will also notice 24‘s Xander Berkeley as a suspicious railroad boss and Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans) doing inspired work as the self-appointed guardian of a precious desert watering hole. His brilliant costuming reflects the decades of interesting trades he’s made with exhausted travelers in desperate need of a drink.
Neeson and Brosnan’s native Ireland might be a long way away from the American desert where Seraphim Falls ends, but these fine lads ably embrace the Western genre with the staggering levels of talent and skill they’ve proven time and again on film.
Despite Carver’s determination to hunt and kill Gideon, Neeson knows when (and just as importantly, when not) to show glimpses of the peaceful, broken man buried beneath the rage and grief.
Brosnan capably navigates the weariness and guilt Gideon feels from his past actions while deftly enduring physical challenges requiring more grit and guts than any of the James Bond movies he was so good in. And Brosnan’s knife skills here are so innovative and impressive that Gideon’s massive Bowie knife nearly becomes its own character.
Carver and Gideon are truly good men at opposite ends of the same terrible circumstance. And though neither was ever necessarily an angel, both had far to fall. Efficiently written, gorgeously filmed and impeccably acted, Seraphim Falls keeps us guessing whether either man will come out standing.