Seraphim Falls

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Anjelica Huston

Director: David Von Ancken
Released: 2006

Mood: If you’ve never experienced being starving and thirsty and hunted by a gun-toting posse over waterfalls and through deserts and you figure the best man to take you there is a grizzled 007.

I literally threw my hands over my mouth and squealed when I read the cast list for Seraphim Falls. Not even kidding. I made so many odd shrieking sounds that my boyfriend and cat were both deeply concerned. 

I bought this DVD after discovering it on a list of the best Westerns of the ‘00s. I remember staring at the promo poster online, taking in the words ‘Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan’, and being super mad at myself that it wasn’t already in my collection.

I didn’t even read up on the rest of the cast until I was already sitting down to watch it. Michael Wincott. Wes Studi. ANJELICA F*CKING HUSTON. 

Now the problem was that my expectations were so high, nothing short of perfection would suffice

Good news, people. Seraphim Falls IS perfection. 

The movie opens in 1868, in Nevada’s snowy Ruby Mountains. A grizzled man named Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) is hunched over a makeshift fire, looking shifty and cooking a small animal. 

Next thing you know, he’s winged by a gunshot, and taking off down a dangerous mountain slope. The men chasing him arrive at his little camp: Carver (Liam Neeson), Hayes (Michael Wincott), Parsons (Ed Lauter), Kid (John Robinson), and another guy who barely survives the first 10 minutes and I’m pretty sure is uncredited. 

What unfolds is equal parts manhunt and man vs. nature, every moment a gripping test of Carver’s dogged determination and Gideon’s will to live. And throughout it all, you’re never 100% sure who’s the bad guy.

illustration of a fancy moustache

Brosnan absolutely f*cking blew my mind in this movie. Just blew it wide open. There are still pieces of brain matter on my couch. 

I’ve never followed his movies; I just saw him on all those ‘most attractive people lists’ and knew he was Bond and that was that. If you said ‘Pierce Brosnan’ to me three days ago, all I’d recall would be his brilliant turn as the smart home that tried to kill Homer on The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XII.  

In Seraphim Falls, Brosnan drags you through every imaginable visceral feeling, and ones you couldn’t imagine and sure as hell don’t want to. 

The dialogue is extremely minimal, with Gideon’s first 15 minutes consisting entirely of grunts, groans, clenched howls, and other primal sounds. He falls into a freezing river and goes over a waterfall, then while facing hypothermia he performs a horrifying surgery on his bullet wound that will leave you grimacing so hard you think your face will stick like that. 

Apparently Richard Gere was originally cast as Gideon, but dropped out just weeks before filming started. I ain’t mad about it, because Brosnan CRUSHED IT. I have NO idea why this movie has such ho-hum ratings on IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic – his performance alone is not to be missed.

But of course, Gideon wouldn’t have gone through so much dangerous, painful shit if he wasn’t being chased. Liam Neeson’s Carver is so grim-faced and at times wildly crazed with the need to kill Gideon, you’re sure he must be the bad guy.  

He’s not quite as cold-blooded as Lance Hendriksen’s bounty hunter Cole Wilson in Dead Man (who also led a posse that included Michael Wincott), but he shows no emotion as his team members bite the dust, and is quick to turn his gun on them if they come between him killing Gideon.

The only minor downside to the entire movie is when you notice Liam Neeson’s accent slipping in and out. He should have just left it out; one in four Civil War fighters was an immigrant. 

Michael Wincott as Hayes delivers a slow burn performance. As you’re realizing that Carver isn’t as bad as you assumed, you’re seeing more and more darkness in Hayes. You’re never told his story, but Wincott gives you this depraved, godless man who seriously enjoys being a depraved, godless man.

illustration of a fancy moustache

Toward the end, Seraphim Falls takes a revisionist Western turn that actually did remind me of Dead Man

Gideon and Carver separately meet a curious and well-dressed Native American man (Wes Studi) who speaks in Cheshire Cat-like riddles. Then, impossibly, they have a Faustian encounter with Madame Louise C. Fair (aka Lucifer, played by Anjelica Huston) peddling nefarious deals in the middle of a desert. 

I thought those Purgatory scenes were a creative take on the classic desert hallucination. Like, they depict the effects of the men being stretched to their physical and mental limits, starving and dehydrated and losing it but still desperately continuing the chase – without all the predictable shimmery, psychedelic, peyote trippy imagery. 

Speaking of imagery – HOLY SHIT, is this a masterpiece in cinematic eye candy. From start to finish, every scene features some of the most gloriously gorgeous shots I’ve ever seen in a Western – or anywhere. 

Oscar-winning (though not for this movie) cinematographer John Toll’s impressive body of work ranges from Braveheart and The Last Samurai to Tropic Thunder and the upcoming The Matrix 4

SPOILER ALERT

The biggest negative critiques of Seraphim Falls seem to have been that it was too simple and too obvious a message about laying down arms. I don’t know what the f*ck those critics were taking at the time, because that’s not the message I got at all. 

I didn’t see two men being like “War is wrong, let’s be better than this”. What I saw was one man with a burning drive to avenge his family, and one who kept fighting to stay alive even though inside he didn’t believe he deserved it. Both haunted by the effects of the war and its aftermath, beaten into submission by the chase, and finally too exhausted to keep fighting the war that was never theirs. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

I would watch Seraphim Falls over and over again. It’s just outstanding in all categories

You’ve got this brutal chase over all types of terrain, through all types of weather. Deaths, thirst, hunger, madness, anguish… it’s all there. You can’t help but be fascinated by all the ways Gideon’s knife keeps his story staggering forward. Carver’s rifle is an iron-framed Henry 1860, showing great attention to historic detail. 

Everyone in the film gives a memorable performance. From Huston and Studi to the bank robbers and the kids in the shack and Carver’s wife in the window, I can clearly picture all of them 24 hours later. And I have the memory of a goldfish.  

I don’t even know how to end this review, because it still feels like I haven’t done the movie justice. I guess you’ll just have to watch it and see!