Stick figures under a Western sun

Pierce Brosnan may be relieved that he no longer has to do the wind sprints required of him as James Bond, but his role in "Seraphim Falls" isn't exactly a stroll in the park. As Gideon, he plays a grizzled loner in the wilds of 1868 Nevada who is pursued by bad guys – or are they good guys? His chief pursuer, Carver, is played by Liam Neeson, grim-faced and black-hatted. And yet, we feel, there must be a good reason for Carver's vengeance.

It takes almost the entire movie to find out what links these two Civil War adversaries. "Seraphim Falls" is essentially one long, bleak stalk-and-kill action thriller. From the rugged snowscapes to the cracked desert vistas, director David Von Ancken and cinematographer John Toll serve up a whole lot of eye candy from the great outdoors.

They also serve up heaping doses of gore. If you ever find yourself in the frozen wilds without your mittens, this movie tells you how to keep warm with a little help from a steaming carcass. The film functions as a kind of survivalists' guide, and there's a morbid pleasure in seeing how Gideon extricates himself from one impossible situation after another.

There is no psychological dimension to either Gideon or Carver, and that is in keeping with the film's elemental tone. Any Western where the heroes are named Gideon and Carver already has one foot firmly sunk in the mythological muck. As long as Von Ancken keeps the action clean and straightforward, the film holds you. But near the end he starts to get all fancy-foolish on us, as when Anjelica Huston suddenly appears in the desert as a snake-oil saleswoman. Worse, she doesn't seem to be the least bit parched. Doesn't the director know that even metaphors get thirsty?

If you compare this movie with the obsessive Westerns of, say, Anthony Mann ("The Naked Spur," "The Far Country"), you'll see the difference between a masterly examination of the nature of revenge and a stick- figure stalker film. Still, "Seraphim Falls" isn't completely without interest, particularly for those of us who still like Westerns and bemoan their demise almost as much as we bemoan the demise of the movie musical.

(Memo to Hollywood: Maybe someone could kill two birds with one stone and revive the Western movie musical? I'm thinking of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," not, I repeat, not, "Paint Your Wagon.")

I'm not sure that this film needed the star wattage of Brosnan and Neeson to get its point across, but both men look ruggedly at home in the harsh terrain. Brosnan, in particular, is so weather-beaten that he seems to have been shaped – gnarled – by the heat and wind. He's as far from 007 as he can get, and he looks happy about it. Grade: B

Rated R for violence and brief language.

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