Roger Ebert once observed that Werner Herzog “has never created a single film that is compromised, shameful, made for pragmatic reasons, or uninteresting,” that “even his failures are spectacular.” Ebert died in 2013, just before Herzog would start to prove him wrong.
“Salt and Fire” isn’t compromised or shameful, it isn’t always uninteresting, and it certainly isn’t made for pragmatic reasons, but there’s nothing the least bit spectacular about the filmmaker’s latest attempt to humble us before nature. Even the landscape feels mundane, as the dreamlike infinity of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni — the world’s largest salt flat — has already been commercialized by a zillion different car commercials. There’s no doubt that Herzog’s quixotic flair for adventure remains intact (his recent documentary work is proof enough of that), but it’s dispiriting all the same to see him boldly go where several Kias have gone before. It’s even more dispiriting to see him get lost along the way.
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And yet, even the worst Werner Herzog film is still a Werner Herzog film, which is fortunate for “Salt and Fire,” as it is absolutely the worst Werner Herzog film (at least until his much-derided “Queen of the Desert” finally opens in the United States next week).
Based on a story by Tom Bissell (whose “Expensive Trips Nowhere” was adapted into a spare, sensational Julia Loktev drama called “The Loneliest Planet”), Herzog’s latest introduces itself disguised as a standard-issue thriller before it suddenly wanders off into the sandy wilds of its shapeless imagination. This pivot is easy to spot, as the plot completely disappears and people start saying things like “The noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest.”
German actress Veronica Ferres stars as Laura, a scientist who’s summoned to Bolivia on an urgent U.N. mission alongside a handsy colleague named Fabio Cavani (Gael García Bernal, who is very much not Italian). When the scientists arrive at the ominously vacant South American airport, their heavily armed liaison escorts them onto a private plane; by the time they land outside a small compound in the middle of nowhere, Laura and Fabio don’t need to see the men in balaclavas to know that they’ve been abducted. The kidnappers, however, are hardly the government forces or greedy separatists that you might expect. In fact, their leader — an American business executive who’s so full of psychobabble that he could’ve been in “The Counselor” — sounds a lot like endearingly terrifying character actor Michael Shannon.
Collaborating with Herzog for the first time since 2009’s mesmerizingly demented “My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” Shannon plays Matt Riley, the Michael Shannon-esque CEO of a sinister group known only as “The Consortium.” What does “The Consortium” consort? It’s hard to say, but they sure have perfected the fine art of poisoning their guests — Fabio is given some bad food for his first meal at the compound, at which point he promptly disappears from the movie with “the mother of all diarrhea.” That leaves Laura with plenty of time to speak privately with Matt, though their conversations seldom touch upon the imminent ecological disaster that she was summoned to avert. In fact, their conversations are seldom even conversations, as Matt prefers to do most of the talking, lecturing his prisoner with rhetorical questions like “Is it possible that there’s something pervasive all around us that your data can’t analyze?” Fuck you, science!
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And when Laura tries to offer a reply? “DO ME A FAVOR AND DON’T TRY TO COME TO THE RESCUE OF A TIRED WORLD!” Shannon is an inherently watchable actor, but Herzog’s script doesn’t provide him with the context needed to support his crazy. Not even Klaus Kinski, the mad muse whose death left a hole in Herzog’s fiction that he’s tried to fill with comparatively casual eccentrics like Shannon and Nicolas Cage, could do anything special with this hot nonsense.
Mercifully, “Salt and Fire” lets Shannon off the hook. Transitioning into the film’s final third with the same abrupt sense of dream logic with which he transitioned into the second, Herzog has Matt abandon Laura in the middle of the salt flats, leaving her to die with nothing but a few supplies and two nearly blind local boys. This is the most beautiful and banal chapter of the movie, as incredible (dare I say, Herzogian) imagery of the natural world is draped over scenes of aimless scenes of waiting for a half-baked Ice-9 situation to unfold.
The hexagonal salt mounds stretch into the horizon like a desiccated honeycomb, their perfect geometry lending the film an unreality that makes the setting feel less real than representative — but representative of what? It’s tempting to assume that Herzog is trying to make the rest of us puny mortals feel as humiliated by our planet as he knows we should, or to show that we are all half-blind little boys crashing our toy cars into each other oblivious to our impending deaths, but it feels wrong to assign him such facile intentions, particularly when not even he seems to know what he’s doing out there in the desert.
“Salt and Fire” is by no means the most willfully obtuse film that Herzog has ever made — it seems as broad as a blockbuster when compared to the likes of “The Wild Blue Yonder” and “Lessons of Darkness” — but it’s the only one of his works in which his curiosity has completely eclipsed his insight. Herzog has always been enchanted by people who tilt at windmills, he’s always eagerly channeled their willingness to court disaster, but this is a folly that’s wholly unworthy of him. For the first time in his brilliant career, the man who made his myth by evangelizing about “the ecstatic truth” seems in need of a reality check.
“Salt and Fire” is now available on VOD. It opens in theaters on Friday, April 7.
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