Revenge is a common theme in stories, movies, books, TV shows... When characters seek revenge, it is a sign that they have not much else to lose. What has been taken from them sparks a flame that will not be quenched until vengeance is seized. This is a large part of why watching or hearing of people wanting revenge is so brutally intense to watch; it is that person at his purest, rawest most emotional state. Much like the old adage stating that you never know who you truly are until you are backed into a corner and have nothing left to lose, characters chasing retribution are in a comparable and vicious state of mind where not much else remains but the drive to go as far as one can until satisfied.
The Unforgiving Wilderness
Seraphim Falls is dominated by the themes of revenge, loss, and absolution. These are hardly abnormal for a western, but this film delivers in a way that sets itself apart from what you expect. Key to this is the minimalist approach to the story and characters.
We are thrust into Seraphim Falls knowing only that Carver (Liam Neeson) is pursuing Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). We don't know why. We can't assume that one is the good guy and one is the bad. Both men do awful and morally questionable acts in an effort to alternately pursue and run from the other. We are told that Gideon is incredibly dangerous and on the run from the law, but we aren't told why. And we don't actually know if Carver has any lawful standing in trying to hunt down and kill Gideon.
There are a great deal of uncertainties, but they serve to add to Seraphim Falls more than detract from it. This is accomplished through that minimalist approach. Focusing on the chase and how the characters react to the travails they are forced to undergo, you construct your own impression of what is going on and who to root for, if anyone at all. The movie's attention to detail in replicating the Old West adds to the effect enormously. You see beautiful vistas of stark mountain ranges, you can almost feel the chill of the icy nights, and you can completely comprehend the thirstiness that the characters must have as they travel through endless arid badlands and deserts. It is a tapestry woven carefully to draw you further into the never-ending chase between the two men.
Characters as Device
As a writer, one thing that quickly caught my attention was how the director chose to lay out the story. For, all things considered, the plot behind Seraphim Falls is very simplistic. Despite the limitations of the basic revenge tale, the director makes it work through the use of other minor characters littered throughout the story. It would be easy to make a timeline of the movie based upon when Carver and Gideon encounter new characters. What's more interesting is that each of them tend to end up meeting the same ones, giving us further insight to their characters as they respond differently to new faces and are responded to differently in turn.
One other interesting to note is how the story starts out feeling like a starkly realistic western and then ends up slowly transitioning toward a more... metaphysical... ending. Things start to get pretty weird towards the end and we, as the audience, find ourselves beginning to question whether the characters Carver and Gideon meet are actually real or figments of their imagination, constructs of their own perception of themselves. It's hard to explain further without going into spoilers, but I thought that this transition from reality to ambiguity helped the film more than hurt it.
All in all, I was enraptured with Seraphim Falls. Although, in the end, I can't help but note that the movie was very basic in plot and characters, the delivery and stylistic choices made with its filming and depiction kept my attention intensely. The minimalist approach and the use of minor characters as a way to prod forth revealing reactions from Carver and Gideon served to make what could have been an average western into a great one. Psychological, harrowing, and raw, Seraphim Falls impressed me. I highly recommend it to anyone who is up for a thoughtful and sharp revenge tale set in some of the most beautiful wildernesses the American west can offer.