Seraphim Falls is a post-Civil War story that pits one man, Carver (Liam Neeson), against another, Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). The former is a Confederate veteran, the latter a Yankee. That there is an unsettled score between them is obvious from the first scene, during which Gideon, in the middle of nowhere, is shot by a band of bounty hunters, totaling four -- including a boy as well as Carver. The movie is rated R and falls justly under the category of viewer discretion. Perhaps the most telling scene takes place in a sandy region, also in the middle of nowhere. The debris from a busted wagon that brought a piano and a tattered bible hundreds of miles causes Carver to remark upon how it was due, as always, to a decision. That is, a decision made somewhere else, out east, prior to the unknown event that dumped artifacts from so-called civilization onto a modest portion of desert wasteland. Also, a decision to cast one's lot in with others who have trekked westward. They, too, have come to a decision. One might add that Seraphim Falls is basically an extended essay on the West. In particular, one that harps on how adaptable it is to provide an unforgiving, desiccated stage upon which to exact revenge, or ford it off, if possible.
For the longest time, the movie appears to be about tracking Gideon, who proves resilient, clever, and capable. He can knife a bullet from a shoulder wound and then keep moving, with or without a horse. Carver is single-minded in his quest for this man's hide. It is not until farther along that the viewer gets to see what motivates the ex-Reb. He has lost everything to Gideon, an officer, whose sudden appearance at Carver's house and farm turns into a scene reminiscent, if scaled down, of the burning of Atlanta. Probably Gideon had a different resolution in mind, but that was how it went. So the completion of this whole action set in motion down south will invariably take place in the West, where, as a character cynically remarks, there "ain't no God."
Death does not come easy either near or past the continental divide. It comes by knife, a grisly accident, or, more likely, bullet. Seraphim Falls has this minimalist element in that the story reduces each prominent character to mostly his own barebones, stark circumstances. These riders seem indefatigable, knowledgeable, and able, yet totally vulnerable. A man set on cashing in on a cadaver worth $250 has his horse shot from under him. In another scene, a horse collapses, and is dispatched by blade rather than a bullet. Many spectators complain about such pictorial arrangements. They certainly have a strong case. Such scenes are raw and visceral. But the filmmakers know the business, and a 2006 western is going to break more often than not with the warmer traditions and milder conventions of the past.
Toward the end there is a hint of Spanish surrealism, albeit Americanized. Many Spanish novels and movies shift seamlessly from reality to fantasy and back again. Wes Studi plays a Native American guarding a water hole with a six-gun and a pipe. Which is it? War or peace? He is very philosophical and unworldly. Then Angelica Huston appears just before the final showdown in a wagon selling Madame Louise's Cure-All. She is stoked to make deals. POV shots show just how wide and unyielding empty space and abandoned earth is. Indifferent, all rock and cracked dirt, a waterless universe, the inhospitable terrain contrasts sharply with the inner mechanisms that make men cross over into mindless violence.