The Best Movie You Never Saw: Seraphim Falls
Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
At the end of the Civil War, Carver (Liam Neeson), a former colonel, hunts down Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) a man with whom he has a grudge. Gideon (Pierce Brosnan), a resourceful and dangerous evades his would be captors, but how far can he go to escape his past?
Written by David Von Ancken and Abby Everett Jaques with Ancken taking on directing duties, the film stars Pierce Brosnan as the hunted man, Gideon, Liam Neeson as the determined Carver, Michael Wincott, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Tom Noonan, Kevin J. O’Connor, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi, and Angelica Huston.
Writer/director David Von Ancken researched the script for SERAPHIM FALLS for about six months before sitting down to write it with Abby Jaques Everett. The initial plan was to make a “primal, elemental chase film” but for it also to be a character driven piece that was fueled by two great actors. In order to find the right setting to drive the story, Von Ancken and Everett decided on the Civil War era.
"Why would there be a chase? How do you drive something like that? It would have to be an atrocity to compel one man to be so driven by hate in his relentless pursuit against another. I needed the setting to be a time when the Transcontinental Railroad was being made, when the West was not tamed. The Civil War period and the Western genre provided the historical background for the film’s story.” – David Von Ancken
Once complete, Von Ancken had numerous offers to buy the script, but not for him to direct. Eventually, he decided to pursue directing the tale himself and brought it to Bruce Davey at Icon Productions, who championed Von Acken to helm it. Initially, Richard Gere was onboard to play Gideon, the former Union soldier being hunted, but he ended up dropping out and the role went to Brosnan, with Liam Neeson secured as Carver, the former Confederate soldier on the hunt. Both Brosnan and Neeson, native Irishmen, have said that they had waited their entire careers to star in a western and were thrilled to be a part of the film.
Production took place almost completely in New Mexico, from the cold of the mountains to the heat of the desert. Veteran DP John Toll was brought on to shoot the film using only available light, utilizing the environment around them to create the film, the cast and crew enduring both freezing cold and extreme heat. Von Ancken said that the landscape of the film was always envisioned as a “third character” to compliment the two leads and act as a major factor in the overall film.
SERAPHIM FALLS initially premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006 and later opened in limited theaters on January 26, 2007. It pulled in paltry numbers, making a mere $418, 296 in its domestic run and an additional $801,762 internationally for a combined worldwide gross of $1,220,058. Critical reception at TIFF was mostly positive, but theatrical reviews put it at 55% at Rotten Tomatoes. Like most cult films, SERAPHIM FALLS has found new life on home video and TV airings, where its quiet, violent, and meta storyline can be more appreciated by wider audiences.
"There are a number of archetypes that they go through, but it’s really a simple sort of quiet movie that we were trying to go for. It’s placing these complex characters in a simple, quiet landscape that would let them be, and let us tell the story from behavior from the beginning." – David Von Ancken
WHY IT’S GREAT:
I saw SERAPHIM FALLS on cable one night and it was one of those movies that halfway in you start looking around for someone to relate to and say, “Dude, are you seeing this? How have I never seen this movie before?” In short, it was a beautiful surprise, which is my favorite kind of movie-going experience. What I thought would be a mediocre, half-baked western with two well-known stars ended up being one of the coolest entries in the genre I’d ever seen and a true showcase for at least one of them.
I’ve always been a big fan of Pierce Brosnan. I remember when he couldn’t get out of his Remington Steele contract to do James Bond initially and I was really disappointed because he just seemed like the perfect model for the character. When he finally got to play the role it was obvious that he was made for it as he elevated the material in a big way when it was lacking. So, when Bond ended for him, I felt like he was robbed a bit. He easily could’ve knocked out a few more, but more than that I felt like he would just kind of disappear into lesser roles. SERAPHIM FALLS is proof that it was not to be so. Brosnan is quiet, menacing, dangerous, genuine, and conflicted as hell in the role of Gideon and it will absolutely stand as one of the best of his career.
“I remember first seeing Pierce on television and watching him transform into the Bond character. There’s always a control to the characters that he has played. It’s not a coincidence that he was so believable and great as James Bond because he’s a very physical actor and very controlled. Yet when you get close to him, his eyes belie the fact that there’s something seething going on underneath. I knew he was Gideon from the moment I met him.” – David Von Acken
Liam Neeson is no slouch, either, but as good as he is here, his role isn’t quite as dirty or challenging as Brosnan’s. That said, the two actors work so well together that you hardly care. Ironically, Neeson would go on to become an action icon shortly after SERAPHIM FALLS in the TAKEN films and other genre pics. The supporting cast has some great appearances as well, including THE CROW’s Michael Wincott, who plays a bounty hunter on Carver’s team with a shaky moral compass, the late Ed Lauter as the most sensible of the group, Tom Noonan as a reverend in a traveling religious group, and Angelica Houston as, well, a...metaphorical presence.
SERAPHIM FALLS immerses you in the environment from the very first shot. John Toll’s cinematography grips you in every scene and you can feel every icy chill, drop of sweat, and dust in the breeze. Not only does the landscape suck you in, but the film wastes no time getting started, with bullets ripping through the air within the first few minutes, kicking off the hunt for Brosnan’s Gideon, who is severely wounded and on the run from that moment on. Who he is and why he’s being hunted is a mystery that unravels throughout the film, which adds a great air of anxiety.
"It really was an endurance test. The reality of a script and the reality of shooting a script are really two different things. When I read it, I thought this is going to be a tough one. But then I was so pumped up and excited in my research of the Civil War, which led me down many paths of excitement and the possibilities of playing this character and finding his heart and soul. You throw all that away. It was just a blast. It was wonderful to do and I love being in the elements anyway and the challenge of filmmaking in foreign lands." - Pierce Brosnan
We don’t hear Brosnan actually speak a line of dialogue until about 23 minutes into the film, but up to that point you’re already deeply invested in his struggle and his mystery. By then he’s already evaded his would-be captors by sliding down a mountainside, nearly drowned in a river, pried a bullet from his arm with a hunting knife, and used the same knife to stab a man in the head. It’s hard to not be curious about Gideon’s deal by then.
What transpires is a film that digs deep into the primordial struggle of man vs. man with the thirst of revenge rooted in the struggle. Eventually we learn what transpired to put Neeson’s Carver on the trail of Brosnan’s Gideon, which was basically an act of war, like so many that afflict those who suffer through it, but not necessarily one perpetrated by pure evil, but merely by the ugly face of fate and chance. There is little to reconcile the pain that drives Carver, who is a man burdened by desire to fill an empty void of hatred, while Gideon is weighted down with tremendous guilt and the natural will to survive. Neither man is either good or bad, but both are wounded by war and seek redemption in different ways. Heavy shit, for sure, and one that many can relate to.
"On either side of the conflict in the Civil War or in the war in Iraq for that matter, the individuals who are at play ultimately are not responsible for the reason they’re there. In Seraphim Falls individuals can perpetuate horrible acts on each other whether it’s by circumstance, coincidence or accident and still be good people. It’s really the construct of men; their wills coming together and fighting. And at the end of the day, when you take that away from them, they’re just two people out there who probably could get along. Ultimately, Carver and Gideon are both good men. One is on the North, one is on the South and either could be the other. The only thing that separates them is circumstance. They are both halves of the same individual." – Pierce Brosnan.
This is very much a traveling film as no one says in any one place for very long and the metaphorical journey from the snowy mountains (heaven) to the dry desert (hell) is almost too obvious, but it works overall. This is not a traditional western rooted in stereotypes, but a deeper vision, told with symbolic grit. The characters that both Gideon and Carver encounter along the way each provide a piece to their ultimate salvation and final fate; a farmgirl who gives shelter to the wounded Gideon; a Reverend who offers food and camp to Carver; a group of outlaws who get more than they bargained for when confronting Gideon; a menacing railroad boss (Xander Berkeley) who taunts both characters; and a Native American (Wes Studi) who supplies what they need in a desperate moment. They all contribute to each man's journey in one way or another.
What stands out in this film, too, is the brutality and primeval elements that pervade it. From Gideon’s first aid with a knife and fire to his unusual and grisly method of warming his hands, and the famous “horse scene” which is typically associated with the film, there’s more than a few gnarly moments that will have you wincing along with the characters. The “horse scene” in question involves Gideon pulling a “Luke Skywalker on Hoth” with his deceased horse in one of the best surprise attacks ever put on film. It’s one of the chief moments that you realize this is more than just your standard fare western.
“I was slimed, it was a bit like "Ghost Busters". Wardrobe department came up with this concoction of vomit and slime and eggs and stuff like that. And the old horse was just a fake horse, it was a Hollywood horse that they spent half the budget on. I never thought it was gonna fly to tell you the truth when I saw it on the day, it looked so fake and rubbery but the angle and the magic of film editing… I hope it's real. They dug a hole and I stood in the hole, it was kind of Pythonesque. That was the humorous side of the day.” – Pierce Brosnan
While the film looks magnificent and the two leads are top notch, not everything is perfect. The story can be a bit too obvious in its meta stance and even a little too odd for some viewers (but never anything quite David Lynch odd) and there are a few sequences that could’ve been fleshed out better, which would've elevated this to "classic" status. The flashback sequence that finally reveals the root of Carver’s revenge plays way too soft and stereotypical to give the weight it really needs to justify his thirst for vengeance. The ending, too, is a bit heavy handed in its final message, but ultimately it does leave room for your own interpretation, so it’s not a total loss.
Despite those shortcomings, the film is a distinctly memorable one and one of the best post-theatrical surprises I’ve had the pleasure of viewing. For fans of the genre it’s got enough of the tropes you love with a strong slant on the symbolic front to give just a bit more depth (minus my aforementioned quibbles). For my money, the film is worth watching just to see Brosnan, who is really the main draw and offers a truly memorable performance, showing a much grittier and dangerous side to his usual debonair and slick Bond-style performances. If you’re weary of comic book flicks, PG-13 action romps, and overbearing comedies, SERAPHIM FALLS is a great respite.
"To me, the best Westerns have a mythic nature to them. Anytime you take two men and strip down what drives them to the primal essentials, you have a myth. What we did in this movie was take them into the wild. Once you get into nothingness, you’re left with the person you’re looking at; yourself, and there’s a mythic quality to that.” – David Von Ancken
"Son, nobody can protect nobody in this world. The sooner you realize that, the better."
There’s quite a few cool sequences in SERAPHIM FALLS, but the most talked about is the aforementioned “horse scene.” After evading Carver once again, Gideon takes off into the desert with his horse, but the lack of water, grueling pace, and extreme heat are too much for the animal and it dies. With nowhere to run or hide, Gideon digs into the horse and waits for his captors, leading to one hell of a surprising confrontation.
"We looked at the Western as American myths. Seraphim Falls was really inspired by that: the primal, universal power of the landscape and the way it strips away everything but the truth of men’s souls. We wanted to show it as a world where scarcity rules and everything you get costs you something, and where there’s nowhere to hide from your enemies or yourself. David (Von Ancken) and I loved the way this world allowed a kind of searing action that was deeply psychological instead of just gratuitous.” - Abby Everett Jaques (screenwriter)
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