*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. Also, this means I don’t waste words summarizing the plot of the movie. Honestly, my articles are best read after recently watching the movie.
I’m still working through all of the westerns in my collection, and I chose this one because, similar to Appaloosa, I forgot I even had it. I remember being very excited for this movie when I saw the previews for it, and then it never really came out. It ended up only getting a limited release then it was released on DVD, which is how I saw it. I really don’t understand why this happened. The two leads, Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson, were bankable enough (then and now) to warrant a wide release. And while the film ends up in pretty unique territory, the majority of it is traditional western. I suppose someone at the studio was not impressed with the final product. And that’s a shame, because this is an entertaining and thought-provoking western that deserves a larger audience.
War is purgatory.
One of the main things I remembered about Seraphim Falls was that the first time I watched it I considered Pierce Brosnan to be the good guy, then the flashback reveals he’s more of a villain than Neeson (based on what we’re shown, we don’t know what kind of military officer Neeson was). I thought that was an interesting way to tell the story for multiple reasons.
First of all, it’s always more interesting to play with an audience’s expectations. We identify with Brosnan because the story begins with him and mostly follows him. He’s portrayed as someone just living on their own who is being hunted by Neeson for unclear reasons. Neeson, on the other hand, is shown to be ruthless to the point that he comes across as evil, though most of his actions are fair, if cold-blooded (he shot the young guy out of mercy, he killed Ed Lauter’s horse because Lauter backed out of their deal, and it was Neeson’s horse, and killing Wincott...well, that was a bit evil, but Wincott was the skeeziest of the crew, so it’s forgivable).
A movie is much more interesting if you have to decide who you should root for, if anyone. Brosnan’s actions post-Civil War make him seem like a decent person, and it’s not like he intentionally killed Neeson’s family (though fault ultimately must fall to him since the war was basically over at that point). Neeson, in the flashback, seemed like a good family man, but since that tragic day he has become more villainous in his quest for vengeance. Neeson’s turn is nothing new. It’s revenge story 101: the pursuit of vengeance often turns the victim into the villain.
Brosnan’s character is more interesting because aside from the flashback, he’s not very remorseful. He’s basically a survivalist. By living a solitary life as a trapper in the mountains, he’s obviously decided that society is not for him, but that doesn’t mean he wants to die. So he’ll survive all the horrible crap that happens to him in the early moments in the film, and he’ll kill anyone trying to kill him. He’s not against Neeson killing him, but he’s not going to let him do it, either. I found that refreshingly realistic. People do terrible things or are responsible for them, but that doesn’t mean they lose the will to live. But what exactly is keeping Brosnan going?
We find out in the end that war is what kept these two men going, even into the afterlife. Without his search for vengeance, what is Neeson’s life? Without being pursued, what is Brosnan’s life? Their personal conflict borne of a national war defines them beyond their natural lives.
It’s clear by the end that at the very least, the last fifteen minutes of this movie take place in the afterlife, specifically in purgatory. Both characters come across a Native American in charge of water named in the credits as Charon (the ferryman of the River Styx in mythology) and the devil (Anjelica Huston’s character’s name is fucking Louise C. Fair), who provides them with weapons to continue their war (both characters appear out of nowhere, by the way). When Brosnan and Neeson meet one last time they decide to lay down their arms and go their separate ways, and they disappear into the landscape. I don’t see how anyone can argue that any of that was meant to be actually happening in reality.
What can be argued is when Brosnan and Neeson die. The most likely answer is that they die of dehydration while chasing each other in the desert. I like to think that they’ve been dead the entire movie, and the flashback is the only thing that actually happened in the “real” world. I don’t have any evidence of this exactly, aside from the whole movie seemingly populated by lost souls in desolate settings. I prefer this interpretation because of what it means to the movie thematically. (I acknowledge my theory is probably wrong since the film provides a time and place stamp at the beginning, not to mention there’s nothing too weird in the film until Charon and Louise C. Fair show up. This is still the way I prefer to interpret the movie, though.)
Seraphim Falls is essentially an anti-war movie. The two main characters only find peace when they realize that they don’t have to fight, much like how humanity in general must realize that war does not have to be inevitable. Why I like the idea that these two characters (and every character, really) are dead the whole time is because it makes the effect of war that much deeper. These men lived by war, possibly died by war, and now continue their war into eternity, unless they change their ways. Them being dead the entire time makes it more interesting because it makes the struggle a much longer process. If they die in the desert, then they are only in purgatory for a few minutes. If they’re dead the whole time, who knows how long this has been going on? It makes their decision at the end to drop their weapons more meaningful if they finally change after all this time. Either way, the ending is effective, and it makes Seraphim Falls much more than just a western.
Why do I own this?
This is probably one of those that I would not have purchased if it came out today. Still, after all these years, it made for a fresh viewing, as I had forgotten most of it. Plus, I’m a sucker for westerns in general.
Some of the previews on the DVD make sense, but a couple are odd choices. I’m looking at you, Seinfeld -Season 8 and Half Nelson.
I watched this in August, but I still felt cold during those early scenes with Brosnan.
Brosnan taking that bullet out of his arm and cauterizing the wound is pretty hardcore.
Michael Wincott! He makes any movie better.
Ha ha! Forgot that he killed the first guy by dropping a knife into his forehead.
Definitely forgot that he cut open the dead dude to warm up his hands…
The rare non-wormy Kevin J. O'Connor role.
That is an interesting use of a bear trap.
I know Jimmi Simpson and Nate Mooney's characters don't have official last names, so I'll just assume they're McPoyles.
How distracting is that, though? The McPoyles showing up in a movie before they were the McPoyles is crazy. It would be one thing if they were in different parts of the movie, but they're together and are even relatives (cousins) according to their names in the credits.
There's plenty going on Biblically early on, but things definitely get more overt later on, with them running into missionaries and talking about God not being out there.
This is certainly a film about extremes, starting in a snowy landscape and ending in a hot desert.
Brosnan emerging from the horse carcass makes the movie for me. It's just so sudden. The first time I saw watched this, I had to scan back and watch it a few more times.
Brosnan's character must've seen Empire. The taun taun scene inspired him.
Talk about a slow burn (no pun intended) to get to the explanation for Neeson's vengeance.
But my God, what a bleak flashback.
"You said the house was empty!"
"They're Rebs, Captain."
That's a hell of an excuse to burn a mother and her two children (one an infant) alive.
"For they that take the sword, shall perish with the sword."
Does that quote refer to Neeson's family? You fought a war, so your family dies? It doesn't seem to be about Brosnan himself or he would have let Neeson kill him.
Wes Studi's character, in the credits, is called Charon. And he guards the only water source around. But Charon ferries the dead across the water. So now it seems these two are dead already.
Which is even more evident when Louise C. Fair shows up at the end. That name is about as subtle as De Niro's in Angel Heart: Louis Cyphre.
I suppose my takeaway from the ending is that these men are dead and in purgatory. They will stay there as long as they keep their vengeance and war alive. Once they lay down their weapons, their souls are freed. I like it, especially since that message can apply to the loving as well.