“Seraphim Falls” begins in what appears to be mid-story, with a man (Pierce Brosnan) being pursued through snowy, mountainous terrain by a posse of men on horseback. We don’t know anyone’s names. We hear the man being pursued as he grunts and wheezes, tired from the chase, but since he’s alone and trying to avoid detection, he has no reason to speak. An onscreen title tells us it’s the Ruby Mountains, 1868, and nothing more.
Our central question as we’re thrust into this riveting, high-tension situation is this: Is the man being hunted the good guy or the bad guy? We have seen posses of righteous frontiersmen chase scoundrels before, but we’ve seen gangs of evildoers pursue heroes, too.
It’s no accident that “Seraphim Falls” makes that question occur to us first. It turns out to be the central question of the film. What did the man, whose name turns out to be Gideon, do to earn the wrath of these other men, led by a guy named Carver (Liam Neeson)? Who’s right and who’s wrong?
Directed by TV cop-show veteran David Von Ancken and written by him and Abby Everett Jaques, the film starts out much better than it finishes, but the start makes it worth watching. Through Gideon’s eyes we see glimpses of memory — a fire, a woman, chaos — and he is haunted by it. Through Carver’s conversations with his men, we gather that he is in charge, that he is paying these men to help him hunt Gideon, and that he will not rest until Gideon is dead.
Gideon proves to be an effective commando-style woodsman, with knife and one-man-army skills that would make Rambo envious, and he survives more than one harrowing setback in the mountains. He was a leader of some sort in the Civil War, though neither his nor Carver’s accent gives us any clue which side they were on. (Amusing that this distinctly American film, with themes of the Civil War, the Old West, and frontier justice, stars two Irishmen.)
The last 20 minutes are a little bizarre, as Von Ancken introduces characters who a) serve metaphorical purpose, b) are imaginary, or c) both. The aphorism-spouting Indian by the watering hole makes some kind of logical sense; the vanishing snake-oil saleswoman played by Anjelica Huston is mystical enough to be weird, and not really in line with the film’s theretofore realistic, earthbound attitude.
It’s an old Hollywood convention that no matter how elaborate or action-packed a movie is, no matter how many people are involved in the conflict, in the end it all comes down to just two guys shooting at each other. “Seraphim Falls” follows that format at a basic, bare-bones level: This is truly a movie about two guys shooting each other. It has themes of revenge and forgiveness and so forth — “You men, always choosing a gun over a remedy!” says one scornful woman — and they resonate well enough. Still, a movie with a story this thin probably shouldn’t be as long as this one is.
B- (1 hr., 55 min.; )