Way back when, I used to work for a company called Technicolor Cinema Distribution as a Film Revisor (2007-2011) and I loved it, film nerd that I am. One of the duties I was charged with, before I was promoted to Account Representative, was the removal and attachment of select trailers to 35mm film prints of movies bound for the theatres. Sidenote – I saw the industry-changing shake-up of the permanent conversion from analogue (35mm film) to digital (compact hard drives) happen in 2011, which unfortunately led to a halving of staff across Canada, including Yours Truly. That was a sad day.
It was through these small rolls of film that I encountered this flick, Seraphim Falls, for the first time. In my work area was a filing cabinet and in this filing cabinet was a worn cardboard box containing about a dozen trailers for Seraphim Falls that were being held in some kind of holding pattern, from before I had even joined the company (they never did get used and we were given permission by the studio to FINALLY junk them 2 years later). If I recall correctly, the original intention was that Seraphim Falls, a decently budgeted ($18 million) Western starring Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson, had been slated for a theatrical release. But something had happened along the way and that release ended up being whittled down to virtually nothing, resulting in barely breaking $1 million in tickets from whatever pathetic handful of screens it ended up playing on. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is the very definition of a Box Office Bomb…which is a damn shame because, having FINALLY gotten around to checking it out the DVD copy that has been languishing unseen in my collection for years now, it definitely deserved to do better.
Seraphim Falls takes place in the late 1860’s, just after the end of the Civil War, in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. It’s in these cold, inhospitable ranges that we meet a mysterious man named ‘Gideon’ (Pierce Brosnan) as he pauses in whatever perilous journey he happens to be embarking on. It’s while warming up over a small fire that he is suddenly ambushed by a group of thugs, led by the cold and calculating ‘Carver’ (Liam Neeson). Sporting a nasty bullet wound, ‘Gideon’ is forced to flee into the wilderness in a wild bid to survive, while also plotting how to turn the tables on his dogged pursuers, who clearly seem intent on his murder. A lethal cat n mouse game ensues among the snowy peaks and foliage-choked valleys.
So, on a chilled-out Saturday afternoon at home (is there any other kind these days?!…fuck you, Covid-19!) I decided to seal myself away and FINALLY get around to checking out this mysterious little flick.
I’ll also throw in that, despite having scoffed at them as a dumb-ass little kid, I’ve grown to really like a good Western over the years…so that added to my interest and curiosity. I was hopeful that this entry into the genre would emerge as some kind of a hidden gem, some well-crafted cinematic endeavour that got fucked out of a well-deserved wide-spread release on The Big Screen (the surprisingly tight WW2 haunted submarine flick Below, from 2002, also springs to mind as a worthy comparison…check it out!) by some moronic, coke-addled studio types.
After a quick pull on the pipe and the cracking of a day-time brew (godless heathen that I am), I grabbed my notepad and a pencil badly in need of sharpening…and hit Play.
Here lie those scribbles…
–Wincott! Good start. Ever since I first noticed gravelly-voiced Canadian actor Michael Wincott in Ridley Scott’s historical misfire 1492: The Conquest of Paradise and then more prominently in 1994’s The Crow (a personal favorite), he’s always caught my attention as an actor who stands out in any and every scene that he’s in. Here he plays Neeson’s rough n tumble second-in-command ‘Hayes’ and it was a pleasant surprise to see him onscreen within the opening minutes.
–Great locations so far. Gritty. Despite taking place in Nevada, apparently Seraphim Falls didn’t actually shoot there, just in states around it. Regardless, it’s obvious that they actually trekked out to these majestic and threatening mountain ranges and embraced the lasting realism that comes with shooting on-location. Good use of wide-angle lens really make the setting become it’s own notable character and gave some added scope to the admittedly small and intimate story.
–Solid stunt work. Fall and rapids. Right off the bat, the quality continues. When ‘Gideon’ is first wounded, he tumbles down a mountain side and it sure looks like SOMEONE (pretty sure Brosnan’s insurance company would’ve had something to say about him throwing himself off a mountain) slammed and rolled their way down hundreds of feet of snow, trees and rocks. This is quickly followed by a fall into a cascading river and over some treacherous falls, which at times actually looked like Brosnan did himself (being in the river, not going over the falls). This is all within the first 10 minutes. Consider me hooked.
–Bad day for Brosnan. ‘Gideon’ is left a fucking mess after being shot and falling down a mountain and into a freezing river, and Brosnan clearly committed to the character’s agony, with him groaning, crying and fighting unconsciousness in the snow as he struggles to save himself from freezing / bleeding to death. Felt pretty genuine.
–Good sense of desperation. Fire lighting scene. This falls into place with the scribble above.
–Goddamn! Tending wounds scene. Ugh! More of the same. ‘Gideon’ uses his trademark, bone-handled hunting knife to messily dig a bullet out of his shoulder and Brosnan really sells the idea that this is not a fun activity.
– Knife shot, Pierce! Tree scene. A mouth-breathing goon makes the mistake of looking skyward and gravity introduces him to ‘Gideons’ large knife, from about 40 feet up in a large tree.
–Ok. Getting gruesome. I’m intrigued. I like gore in my movies (especially the romcoms!), what can I say.
– They committed. Acting solid. Across the board, everyone steps up to do their part in bringing this simple revenge tale to life.
–Like a rustic Die Hard or Cliffhanger. Lethal cat n mouse. I love 1988’s classic Christmas movie Die Hard and its mountain-based clone from 1993 Cliffhanger and couldn’t help but to notice certain narrative similarities between them and this. That’s just fine with me.
–Damn! Snap trap death! After finding the corpse of a bear caught in a vicious foot-hold trap, ‘Gideon’ repurposes the disgusting device for another task, one I did not expect but approved of when it was unexpectedly put to lethal use.
–Good thing that knife throw worked. This was just one of those *SPOILER* moments you have to accept and move on from in service of the plot. ‘Gideon’ encounters a group of fleeing robbers and one of them decides he can’t let the wounded fugitive go, now that they’ve all seen each other. Naturally, the asshole wanted Brosnan to turn around so that he can see the face of the man who killed him. Brosnan does turn, but hurls his blade straight into the thief’s throat as he does, with almost supernatural accuracy. Had he missed, which would be entirely possible given the circumstances, the story would’ve ended right there and then with a single gunshot. But alas, ‘Gideon’s aim was true and Buddy Robber Guy died a quick but horrid death.
– Cold blooded. Off’s dude’s horse. To really get across that ‘Carver’ is a serious dick, when one of his men decides that this caper is getting too dangerous and decides to cash in a bounty on the corpse of Buddy Robber Guy instead of continuing the search for ‘Gideon’, ‘Carver’ pauses just long enough to put a bullet into the former goon’s horse, leaving him to carry to body across the scorching desert (the entire movie does not take place solely in the mountains) before carrying on his quest for vengeance. Just an asshole move. Good villain, even if a little ‘flat’.
– Every Western staple; robbers, railway, coolies, settlers etc. They’re all here!
–Tom Noonan! This intimidatingly tall actor has appeared in numerous top-notch films, such as Manhunter (1986), The Monster Squad (1987), Robocop 2 (1990), The Last Action Hero (1993) and Heat (1995), to name a few. Always a pleasure to see Mr. Noonan onscreen and here was no different.
– Ha! Gruesome ambush! Horse guts. There’s a gruesome ambush that involves horse guts. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle!
– Interesting Civil War aspect. VERY morally ‘grey’ characters. When we are first introduced to our protagonists, we’re not given any information on their backgrounds or why what’s happening is happening. As the story unspools, we come to find out that no one is innocent and everybody has their own sins to atone for, going back to events during the war.
–Gunshot to arm messed Pierce up. Good to see. It’s ridiculous how many action movies feature characters getting shot in an extremity only to just brush off the wound and carry on like it was nothing. Not here. Here, ‘Gideon’ is permanently disadvantaged by the large hole ripped in his shoulder and it plagues him for almost the entire 115 minute run-time.
– Wes Studi! I first saw this prominent and distinctive Native American actor in 1992’s excellent The Last of the Mohicans adaptation by Michael Mann and have enjoyed every role I’ve seen him in since, from Heat (1995) up to Avatar (2009), and beyond. The cast just keeps on impressing!
– Anjelica Huston?! Magic? The stellar casting continues! Hollywood royalty Huston appears (and I do mean “appears“) in the 3rd Act, where the movies takes on a strange, Purgatory-related slant as the two, vengeance-driven men’s paths finally converge. It’s a little on-the-nose, but it was nice to see ‘Morticia Adams’ again, as a mysterious snake oil salesperson out on a desert flat.
–Fitting end, overlooking the bullet wound. Given the moral ‘greyness’ of the two leads, Seraphim Falls offers up an ending that may be seen as a cop-out by some, but also perfectly appropriate by others. I’m totally fine with it, despite the fact that *SPOILER* a key character is left with a large bullet in the abdomen, with no medical aid of any kind available in any direction, after having just watched the entire movie with Brosnan noticeably suffering from a similar wound to his shoulder. But nope…in short order, SOMEONE is back on their feet, trudging along instead of dying writhing on the ground in bloody agony. Was a little sloppy…but I got over it.
–Good score by Harry Gregson-Williams. The music is good and atmospherically appropriate, by one of the preeminent composers working in Hollywood today. More evidence of bigger original plans for this movie!
–Solid Western. Got robbed on release. And there it is.
All in all, Seraphim Falls is one of those hidden gems (as I hoped it would be) where, despite getting screwed over by the studio originally releasing it, the quality and care that went into crafting it are clearly evident onscreen. It boasts an impressive cast who commit to the simple story, great location shooting, a surprisingly brisk and effective pace, some surprising and gruesome violence and some interesting questions about vengeance and duty. Admittedly, some of the characters could’ve benefited from some more ‘flesh’, but what I got sufficed for the purposes of the story being told. I really don’t have much in the way of complaints and can easily recommend Seraphim Falls to even casual fans of the Western genre. Even Thriller and Action flick junkies will find something to like here and as a result, I’m still astounded by how unfairly it’s initial release was handled. It deserved to be seen by a lot more people and I hope others, like myself, come across it and get a pleasant surprise when they give it a chance.
It deserves it.
Take the plunge over the Seraphim Falls!