Seraphim Falls might seem like just another frozen frontier great-race escape film, what with all the beautiful landscape brutality and outlaw pomp and circumstances, but you can’t feel the cold from the parking lot and camp fires in the snow need you near to warm your toes. This is classic Civil War era mano y mano mortal combat, rightfully rated R so the blood’s red and the survivor tactics are fierce in the action instead of above it. Maybe it’s the snow-capped Ruby Mountains of Nevada that sets the mood, the tickle-choke on trail dust and the certain purgatory of desert wastelands that leads you on hallucination-induced fever dreams. Of course it’s ultimately up to you whether or not it rings true, whether it catches the right mix of sun lit horseback rides and gun fire tides, whether it takes you places that you haven’t been since when you were a kid making gunslinger impersonations and Westerns still held the awe and magic of adolescent play. After all, dreamers never grow old and big kids will always reminisce finger pistols to hold, from time to time, the power of hip shooters and lasso’s as much now as forever.
Westerns have always come and gone on the wind of fleeting popular opinion, quickly replaced by torture porn and airplane sized cargo ship containers full of mediocre E.T wannabes. Maybe it was Unforgiven that stretched thin the idea of frontier sentimentalism before it became a dirty word to describe Hollywood’s war on history books and truth to the story not to the ending. It seems like there’s been a slew of one-off types skipping PG13 ham bones on the shallow surface rivers of the Old West that hasn’t let up nearly two decades. It was Geronimo and Gun Smoke homage to Keifer Sutherland’s Cowboy Way in the early 90s, pretty boy forgettable Frank & Jesse, noon day soap opera spit and polished like Legends of the Fall to thankfully restorative, Jim Jarmusch’s lovingly realized Dead Man featuring Johnny Depp’s best blended homage to Charles Chapman and Buster Keaton. I mean it’s hard to know what to do with Kelly LeBrock’s sex Western Hard Bounty or the revisionists like Wild Bill and Cheyenne, Buffalo Soldier’s and Kevin Costner’s Water World on horseback, The Postman. And I haven’t even scratched the fleas on the old ranch dog with the likes of El Meriachi, which was different once, not twice, leading to Rodriguez’s stumbled wasteland franchise of his Spy Kids. And that was just the 1990’s!
I’d like to think we got close to gritty hombre’s in Ravenous, before people resorted to eating one another and the movie turned out to be more horror than six shooters from the hip and those fancy twirling pistoleros – not to be confused with Shaky Gonzalez‘s ladder to nowhere feature of the same name. But the 90’s turned again toward the end, capping the decade with disastrous results like Barry Sonnenfield’s Steampunk slash Western slash Action-Comedy fiasco, the bastardized remake of Michael Garrison’s immutable television series Wild Wild West (1965 – 1969) starring Robert Conrad (Blacksheep Squadron, “knock the Energizer Battery off my shoulder, I dare you”), replaced and regurgitated for modern slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am audiences with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. It took Cory McAbee’s space and Western blender The American Astronaut (my review here) in 2001 to shake the sheets but I think it was John Hillcoat’s Austrian Outback film The Proposition, fueled by calculated camp fires and the red-hot branding irons with Guy Pearce’s reflective outlaw, Ray Winstone’s wounded law man and the irascible John Hurt’s brittle bounty hunter where wide open held your attention and saddle back stained tears started you thinking. Personally, I’d be happy with a few more Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jessie James By The Coward Robert Ford and less overblown for the sake of overblowing, actor led contemptible, deadened remakes and uninspired television shows held together with wax, sometimes glue, deflated on worn seams of sameness.
It’s easy to get involved in this film, to join the chase to the death as the two men ride hard and bleed all over themselves and the white snow because there aren’t any distractions or cutaways. You just have to set aside your expectations and quell the muttering of so many reviewers and aggregators that would rather give films like Tree of Life high marks for unwatchable than entertaining. You can’t ignore the charged 18 minutes of Falls opening, the quickened pulse and perspiration, finding your fists have been clinched too long and tingle some, your eyes burning from staring too hard at the screen. Twenty minutes will get you thirty on horseback and holed up in shambled shacks, blood finally drying a little bit the way open wounds always do near flames and talk from children always gravitate to questions about what’s it like to kill a man or watch them die. The acting is hardly noticeable, when that used to be what everyone wanted, better thought of in terms of accomplished emotions and resolute glances, the sort of earned expressions so often lost on actors of the moment that look good to the camera and eager audience fantasies but can’t last, don’t ever make long careers or haven’t yet. If you brush away the fact sheets and box office receipts, the fact Falls was poorly received on release and has hardly done any better since, there’s ample reward. Lots of films get the cold shoulder treatment, miss their target audience, find themselves relegated unjustly to discount DVD bins and content containers for free movie channels. That’s the trouble with the collected, the reduction process simmering films down to thin on the bottom pan of gathered opinions where even the tastiest souffle looks like yesterday’s breakfast.
Seraphim Falls takes a chance on returning to the old-fashioned kind of movie watching experience where the characters are well thought out and memorable, the acting gives you a sense of urgency and dire consequences keeps you invested. It makes plenty of mistakes too, odd choices that might not wash or worse, detract you – like the mercurial ending, lost in sun wandering, but it all comes back around to genuine performances. Maybe it’s deeper than that, the thromp-thromp thromp-thromp from your heart pumping faster to the quick action that follows, Brosnan and Neeson stripped down in the snow to warm their bones by a hasty fire, for seconds, and it’s there or it should be, the point where you have got to ask yourself, are you in or are you out because Falls isn’t going to let go until you do.