It begins with a gunshot, as from a starter's pistol, and the race is on. Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) - heavily bearded, feral from chase - is pursued across a frozen landscape by the steady, vengeance-driven Carver (Liam Neeson) and his posse. Motives stay opaque; Carver's gang churns through the snow in implacable advance, Gideon doubles back to pick off stragglers, and both men rankle with a hidden hurt that they cannot or will not forget. Shot under the auspices of Mel Gibson's Icon Productions (with "Braveheart" cinematographer John Toll), David Von Ancken's marathon-man Western trades in Mel's favorite things: out-of-breath action filmmaking in an allegorical vein.
"Seraphim Falls," like "Apocalypto," values movement over dialogue-conversation, when it happens, is in negligibly flat, Zane Grey banalities; you can hear "I reckon," "I'd be obliged," and "'round these parts" in the space of a minute's screen time. First-time feature filmmaker Von Ancken proves himself a resourceful mutilator, but his movie's ambitions demand more. When "Seraphim Falls"' last chapters plunge into the hallucinatory, it's awkward, rather than justified by the story's mounting fever. (One wonders, What Would Mel Do?: he's still a ways from becoming our era's Cornel Wilde, but the lucidly shot approach to Tenochtitlan in "Apocalypto" was a step in the right direction.)
Making a modern Western pits a filmmaker against history - not just that 20-year open-range slice of the American experience, but against a dense century of movies. Von Ancken meets his precedents head on, going as far as to appropriate the purgatorial Death Valley climax of "Greed"; "Seraphim Falls" repudiates Von Stroheim and Frank Norris's fatalism with a moment that about-faces the story from doom to redemption, like a page-flip between Old Testament and New. The largesse of the gesture is impressive - the everything-altogether scope of the 19th-century novel, which "Greed" aspired to, scares off most comers now - even if the results, to quote an old Gibson-ism, are "boring as a dog's ass."
This is but one chunk of undigested homage in the bricolage upchuck: "Seraphim Falls" passes as an avowed throwback to straight-up genre moviemaking (cribs from Mann, Dwan, Eastwood...), a doomsday frontier death trip in the style of "Dead Man," a gristly serving of Spaghetti violence a la "Cut-Throats Nine," all with an overachieving moralistic chaser. It's not so much the familiarity of the material that's problematic - this trail's been traveled before, sure - if it's shock of the new you're looking for, you'd best avoid the Western ritual in the first place. But beyond a very game performance from Brosnan, "Seraphim Falls" lacks a distinct mood, gesture, swagger-anything-to compellingly argue for its existence.
"Seraphim Falls" (the Sunday school foreboding of that title's only one-tenth as poetic as the filmmakers think it is) achieves that combination, unique to our time, of being both bloated and underfed, like a 300-pounder malnourished from living off Cheetos. It's frantic but gradually enervating, cuts at a clip that prohibits the development of palpable attrition, and yet feels every bit of its 115 minutes. Revenge isn't much to live for, but who needs Anjelica Huston as the devil, probably, and the Temptation of St. Neeson to bring that idea home? A lesson in filmmaking humility: the conclusion of Anthony Mann's "Winchester '73," when 'Dutch Henry' Brown catches the bullet that Lin McAdam has been hankering to put in him for years. It's not a big scene - the quickest cut in the movie, as his body drops from its perch - but the consciousness of the violence is elevated; you can sense the border of life and death, crossing which a human becomes a thing. And the sudden deflation is nauseating.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]