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Director David Von Ancken’s “Seraphim Falls” has all the basic elements: horses, cowboy hats, guns, railroads, bank robbers, desert landscapes, tight-lipped conversation. The film is almost entirely peopled by men, everyone drinks out of leather canteens and nobody can trust anybody not to try to kill him.
Sounds like a typical Western, right? Even when we get down to details, the film sounds like a Western. It takes place in 1868, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. It’s set primarily in New Mexico and Death Valley, California, and the main characters encounter men building railroad tracks – living in tents along the side of the tracks – and a mysterious woman in a stagecoach selling a cure-all elixir.
Certainly, the plot is straight out of the Western genre: One man wants revenge, while the other just wants to live. But despite all the shoot-outs amongst the solemn New Mexico shrubbery, the movie doesn’t feel like a Western at all.
Rather, “Seraphim Falls,” released in 2006 – well after the heyday of John Wayne and the blanket-wearing Clint Eastwood – feels more like Antonia Bird’s 1999 film, “Ravenous,” or even Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 Oscar-winner, “The Hurt Locker.” “Feels like” doesn’t mean “is like.” I don’t mean to suggest a common theme, though I’m sure I could concoct one for an analytical essay, should the need arise.
No, I mean “Seraphim Falls” features close-up camera work, curious art direction, graphic depictions of organs and wounds, and an incredibly high-pitched, long-lasting tension that starts during the very first scene and doesn’t end until the last. The old Westerns didn’t work like that. They took things a bit more slowly.
They eased the viewer into the action by providing some background information. They would introduce the protagonist to the audience and coax them into liking him before they bombard him with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
They featured violence without focusing in on it. When someone bled, the hole in his skin was more suggested than actually visible to the moviegoer’s eyes, even on the big screen.
In short, the distance between the tormented, on-screen characters and the comfortable, popcorn-munching viewers was much greater. What we see in “Seraphim Falls” is not so much a Western as a contemporary action drama that just happens to be set in the Old West.
That being said in my long-winded way, it’s also quite a good contemporary action drama. Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson make excellent antagonists: each sympathetic, each right, each wrong. Their decisions are complex and appropriate, and the film’s ending is both unpredictable and spot on. I particularly liked Anjelica Huston’s dreamy, apparition-esque appearance in Death Valley.
Huston is at her best when playing someone whom you can’t quite peg as a tangible person.
“Seraphim Falls” will screen at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Mesa Public Library in the upstairs meeting room theater.
It is presented as part of the library’s Free Film Series, which this season highlights movies filmed in New Mexico. The series concludes with a festival of short films by New Mexico filmmakers on July 1.
The Friends of the Library and Los Alamos Arts Council sponsor the event.
For more information, call 662-8240 or visit www.losalamosnm.us/library.