David Von Ancken's thoughtful Western Seraphim Falls opens with a scene that would serve as the climax for most oaters. The year is 1868 and high in the Ruby Mountains, a weary traveler (Pierce Brosnan) is setting up camp. Suddenly, a gunshot cuts through the silence and the man feels a bullet tear through his shoulder. In an instant, he's on the move, half-running, half-tumbling down a steep hill that leads to a roaring river. Through the trees steps the shooter (Liam Neeson) and his four hired guns. They move to pursue their wounded quarry, but their boss stops them. "He ain't getting away," he growls. "Let him bleed."
Thus begins a tense, taut, and bloody chase that continues for the duration of the film's 110-minutes. Along the way, we are provided with scraps of information about these two men, beginning with their names — Carver (Neeson) and Gideon (Brosnan). Both were high-ranking officers during the Civil War, the latter for the Union and the former for the Confederacy. Their paths crossed in the war's final days, when Gideon was dispatched to Carver's homestead to bring the Rebel colonel in and instead caused the death of his wife and children. Haunted by the incident, Gideon resigned his post and has been on the run from a vengeful Carver ever since. By the time we meet them, it's clear that these men have grown accustomed to this endless chase. Carver in particular seems unsure about what he might do if he actually caught Gideon, which explains his cavalier attitude in the opening scene. In fact, he corners his prey no less than three times during the course of the film, but repeatedly finds himself unable to pull the trigger.
Seraphim Falls was financed by Mel Gibson's production company, Icon, and it bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor/director's recent effort, Apocalypto. Both films attempt to bring a symbolic edge to what is essentially a feature-length chase sequence. It's not a coincidence that the movie begins in the heavenly surroundings of the Ruby Mountains and ends in the burning heat of the desert. Just as Apocalypto billed itself as a meditation on the forces that cause a civilization to collapse, Seraphim Falls ponders the costs of a nation at war with itself. Although Gideon and Carver begin the film as flesh-and-blood characters, by the film's surreal climax they have become stand-ins for the North and the South. That's why neither man can ultimately defeat the other — they must either continue the chase or come to some understanding before parting ways.
This probably sounds dreadful, and by all rights the film should be a pretentious bore. But damned if Seraphim Falls didn't hold my attention all the way through. The extended mountain pursuit, which lasts close to a half-hour, pulls you into the picture immediately. Then Neeson and Brosnan, along with the beautiful location photography from DP John Toll, keeps you involved even when Von Ancken's heavy-handed direction threatens to bog the proceedings down. The stars are crucial to the film's success, accomplishing the difficult feat of communicating their characters' individual and shared histories with a minimum of expository dialogue. Brosnan's haunted eyes and disheveled appearance clearly reveal a tortured soul, while Neeson's cold stare instantly marks him as a man who has little left to live for beyond revenge. As embodied by these actors, Gideon and Carver come across as natural enemies, so there's almost no reason for Von Ancken to provide a specific explanation for how the chase began. (And as it turns out, the flashback that reveals Gideon's horrific mistake in full turns out to be the weakest scene in the film, literalizing a past that was better left hinted at.) Fortunately, the writer/director allows his offbeat finale to remain open to interpretation. The last scene of Seraphim Falls will no doubt annoy as many views as it intrigues, but it's an appropriately mythic send-off to these larger-than-life characters.