Friday, June 22, 2007

Seraphim Falls and the better, and baser, angels of our nature

Third Season of Deadwood's out on DVD now and over at newcritics Al Swearengen himself's giving a preview.

So I'm not going to write about Deadwood today. I'm going to write about another western. A movie. Seraphim Falls, which stars Pierce Brosnan as a former Union officer turned trapper and Liam Neeson as a vengeance-seeking former Confederate colonel who tracks him down and chases him from the Ruby Mountains, across Nevada, and into the alkalai desert for a final showdown, and that about sums up the whole of the plot.

Still it's a good, taut, intelligent film. Nothing special but exciting. And in its own quiet, understated, symbolic way almost as cynical about the settling of the Wild West as Deadwood, though not as profane.

The characters don't curse much nor do they speak in blank verse ever. In fact they hardly speak at all.

Brosnan's character, Gideon, is the focus of the movie. He's outnumbered and outgunned, usually on foot while Neeson and the gang of bounty hunters he's hired to help capture him---but not kill him. They don't get paid if they kill Gideon. Neeson's character, Colonel Carver, is reserving that pleasure for himself.---are on horseback, and he's wounded badly in the shoulder from an ambush in the very first scene, and our rooting interest is in seeing how Gideon will stay alive for the whole movie and arrange it so that there will be, as we know there must be, a final showdown between himself and Carver.

Brosnan isn't given much to say. He's on his own for close to half his screen time and when he meets up with other characters his conversations with them are short and to the point. "I need a horse." "Water!" "How far to the next town?"

But he's very good at acting without dialog. Like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive---to which director David Von Ancken gives respectful nods throughout, including having Gideon take a plunge over a waterfall that like Dr Kimble's there's no way he should have survived---Brosnan is excellent at silently portraying inner turmoil and physical exhaustion. Gideon is a desperate man, in pain, afraid, confused, losing hope, but thinking, always thinking, so that he's always dangerous.

Brosnan's also good at suggesting an underlying guilt and an accompanying sense of resignation. That guiltiness and the fact that his antagonist is played with nobility by Liam Neeson makes us wonder if, even though Gideon is in the position of underdog hero and has captured our sympathy, he is in fact a hero and if we should be rooting for him.

Brosnan does such a good job with the guilt, condemning himself with a Serves me right look of sadness after every wince of pain from his shot-up shoulder and after every new stroke of bad luck undoes what his last careful plan of escape had accomplished, that well before Carver reveals why he's chasing Gideon we're certain there's a very good reason.

Neeson has far more to say, Carver has to talk to his hired guns sometimes, but he's also usually short and to the point. His main job in the movie is to be Liam Neeson, the good, heroic Liam Neeson of Rob Roy and Michael Collins, in order to impress us with a sense of an underlying decency in a man who is on a brutal mission, going about it ruthlessly, and is throughout all business, his business being deadly revenge.

We're never meant to believe that his character is the real hero, but we are meant to know without being told that at one time he was a hero. He's changed or forgotten that side of himself but through Gideon's guilt and Carver's own residual nobility we become convinced before we know the whys and hows that if the change in Carver isn't all Gideon's fault he is still to a great degree responsible.

What we have then are two tragic figures on their way to a confrontation that, because Von Ancken has made Seraphim Falls more visually poetic and narratively symbolic movie than the average horse opera needs to be, we suspect is going to tell us something about role of the Civil War, or war generally, has had in shaping the American character.

But because along the way Von Ancken, who wrote the screenplay with Abby Everett Jaques, is taking us on a cynic's magical history tour of the west to see some iconographic moments and archetypal characters through rather skeptical eyes, we can guess that whatever he finally has to say about the War won't be romantic or as tragic as the main characters.

Gideon himself starts out as one of those archetypal characters, the lone trapper, reluctantly blazing a trail he'd rather the rest of civilization wouldn't follow. His path of escape takes him from the isolated and unspoiled mountain wilderness---gorgeously photographed---down to a pioneer homestead where he meets a family of settlers, father, teenage daughter, young son. No mother. She's dead. It's never said specifically what killed her---disease, wild animals, childbirth, Indians, outlaws---whatever it was doesn't matter, because the real cause of her death was the frontier itself. Through the mother's absence and what the daughter who has had to take her place at too early an age goes through Von Ancken is suggesting the important, hard, and brutally dangerous role women played in the settling of the country and the price they paid for it.

Gideon---and after him Carver, always right behind him---goes on from there to a railroad camp where immigrant labor is hard at work industrializing and civilizing the country and where instead of making common cause one despised ethnic group, the Irish, take out their resentment and anger on another, the Chinese.

Gideon and Carver meet up with a band of religious pilgirms who at first encounter appear so wrapped up in their faith and their bible that reality seems to be slipping right by them and they're becoming a wandering mob of delusional psychotics but who reveal themselves to be when they need to be worldly, crafty, licentious, greedy, and dishonest, without dropping their self-congratulatory God-bothering for a second.

They come across the burned out skeleton of a covered wagon and the broken remains of a piano someone had planned to build a new home around, the evidence of the too great hopes and the unfulfilled dreams of too many people who went west looking for a better life.

And they meet up with an Indian, perhaps the last of his tribe, who because he's played by Wes Studi comes across as as noble and wise as Chingatchgook but turns out to be the first of a very different kind of Indian, the kind hucksters sell to tourists. Indeed he's set up his own little tourist trap, selling not hokey souvenirs but water. Still it's a forerunner of the shops that will someday peddle little dolls and toy tomahawks and factory-made Navajo rugs to compensate for not being able to offer tourists a real taste of Native American culture because it's been wiped out.

They never come to a real town because that would be a dramatic dead end for them. A town would have a sheriff who would very likely get in the way of the final showdown. But they do encounter the chief reason for there being such things as towns, which is that people need somewhere to go to buy and sell, what Al Sweargen would call fuckin' Commerce, and that arrives in the form of Angelica Huston as a traveling saleswoman of patent medicine appealing to the fears and baser instincts of prospective customers to sell them her snake oil.

All of this sounds more heavily handed in its irony than it plays. Von Ancken always keeps the chase and escape story front and center and moving swiftly so that in our excitement we don't notice until after Carver leaves a place or says goodbye to the characters what cynical point just got made. It also happens that people tend to behave better around Gideon and don't show the darker, or darkest, sides of themselves until they meet up with Carver and his men. In fact, Carver seems to bring out the worst in them. Just as a for instance, when Gideon is in their cabin the family of settlers treat him kindly and go out of their way to help him, even though they have good reason to think he's there to steal from them. The father deals with him fairly and the son is just a curious little kid who is both afraid of him and in awe of him as a figure of adventure and mystery. But when Gideon leaves and Carver arrives, the father is made a coward and the son shows himself up as little thief and the daughter, who was grown-up and motherly and competent around Gideon, is reduced to a helpless victim.

There is a Do Unto Others of courseness to this. Gideon treats people better because he needs them to help him, while Carver has not a thought for anything or anybody but his own mission and therefore tends to treat people more directly as means to his ends as opposed to Gideon for whom people are aides to him in achieving his ends.

And I think Von Ancken does intend a moral lesson here. But it's still connected with the cynical themes of his movie.

Carver is a former Confederate officer, after all. There's no reason for us to think that Von Ancken isn't using his main characters in the same ironically iconographic way as he uses his minor characters, so Carver is not just from the South, he is the South.

When we find out what happened at Seraphim Falls in the last days of the Civil War we understand that Carver has an excellent reason for hating Gideon. But there's something missing in his sense of justice.


What happened at Seraphim Falls was a result of a war the South started, a war that Carver as a Southern solider then ought to bear some responsibility for too. He helped cause the terrible thing that happened to him. And he doesn't see that. To him it was as if there'd been no war. It was as if Gideon and his troop of soldiers had come along out of pure malice. He puts all the blame on Gideon as if Gideon had simply decided to do him a terrible wrong for sport. His insistence on placing all the guilt on the Northerner and his refusal to shoulder even a little bit himself is even more arrogant and blind because what happened was not just a result of war, it was an accident of the war. No fighting was underway. Gideon and his men were just being careless.

A great deal of the West was settled after 1865 by former Confederates leaving their war ravaged homes to start over, but if many of them were like Carver they took with them into the West and ingrained in the Western character, which is the American character, a sense of agrievement without a sense of responsibility. Self-pity and a baseless sense of moral superiority that makes a man a hypocrite from the get-go without his having an inkling of it are the marks of an American descended from the likes of Carver.

Gideon is compassionate because he is guilty. He is always reluctant to presume upon others because he cannot forget that at bottom he doesn't deserve special favors. Which says a lot about the importance of having an oppressed and oppressive conscience. But it has its drawbacks. In general, Gideon would rather retreat than stand up for himself and when push comes to shove he almost can't bring himself to defend his own life.

And if a lot of Carvers went west after the war so did as many Gideons. There are two strains of Americans then, according to Seraphim Falls. Neither one of them is pure of heart, neither one of them is clearly and cleanly heroic. But one knows itself to be guilty and is therefore inclined to stay its hand, to think before acting, to doubt its own motives and to try to make sure it's right before it sets out to do anything, while the other is self-righteous, certain, angry at heart, quick to lash out, unable to forgive, and brutal when it decides it wants a fight.

In the end, the Carvers of the world never know themselves to have been beaten, only wronged, while the Gideons never feel they've won or deserved to win and so can't press their advantage, and while the two might be walking side by side in the same direction, trying to cross the same wasteland of history, they aren't walking together.

Seraphim Falls. Directed by David Von Ancken. Screeplay by David Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques. Starring Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan, Wes Studi, Angie Harmon, and Angelica Huston. Icon Productions and Samuel Goldwyn Films. 2006.

Please help support this blog. Buy the Seraphim Falls DVD at Mannion at the Movies or click on the link to purchase Deadwood: The Complete Third Season.

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