Saturday, January 11, 2014

Seraphim Falls

I recently saw Seraphim Falls. In terms of genre, the film combines elements of the Western, revenge drama, and a chase film. Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson play the two leads. Both actors are terrific in their respective roles, although they struggle with American accents. Both actors play Civil War veterans. Gideon was a Union officer while Carver was a Confederate officer. After the war, Gideon comes to arrest Carver. In the course of the arrest, he inadvertently kills Carver's wife and sons. As a result, Carver is bent on revenge.

Even though Gideon follows orders, he does have a conscience, and there are moral limits to what he's prepared to do. Ironically, although Carver has a legitimate grievance, he's more ruthless than Gideon. Gideon only kills in self-defense, and he preserves a streak of kindness. By contrast, Carver has lost his humanity in his single-minded quest for vengeance. 

In the outset of the film, Gideon is being pursued by a posse, led by Carver. At this stage, Carver seems to be bounty hunter. But as the narrative progresses, we learn from flashbacks his true motives. At first, Gideon doesn't know why or by whom he's being hunted. Only later does he come to realize that his haunted past has caught up with him. As one character says, quoting Scripture, "your sins will find you out" (Num 32:23).

Out of curiosity, I skimmed some movie reviews. Most critics panned the film, and even those who gave it passing grade don't really understand it. The problem is that most contemporary movie critics lack the Classical and Biblical literacy to catch the allusions. And to the extent that they sense a Christian allegory, they are reflexively hostile. In addition, too many movie critics have no patience for subtextual subtleties.  

The title of the film is a double entendre. There is a waterfall where Carver is living, but in the symbolism of the film, it also evokes the angelic fall–not because the film is about fallen angels, but because it is about a fallen world. Sin and redemption. 

At one point, Carver says "Ain't no God out here!" That turns out to be a half-truth. God is outwardly absent, but providentially present in the unfolding narrative. 

On the face of it, the plot has some cliches. You have a fugitive who's outnumbered, yet one by one he beats the odds because the posse underestimates him. By process of elimination, it comes down to a head-to-head conflict with the two principals.

We've seen this before. But in the symbolism of the film, this isn't just a cliche. Rather, it's divinely providential that Gideon is a survivor.  

Critics were confused by the ending. Most of the film is fairly prosaic, but towards the end it veers into religious allegory. 

There's a scene that seems to depict an American Indian shaman guarding a watering hole. He spouts some fortune cookie mumbo jumbo:

Go as you wish.
That which is yours will always return to you.
That which you take will always be taken from you.

That seems like another cliche about the folk wisdom of the shaman. But the symbolism runs deeper. In the credits, the character's name is Charon. That's a clue. In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who conducts the dead to the netherworld. And he's Christianized in Dante's Inferno. That also explains the watering hole–analogous to the rivers of the netherworld. 

I take this to mean that when Gideon and Carver drink from the watering hole and pass beyond that juncture, they are crossing the threshold from life into death and the afterlife. A borderland between two worlds. 

And in the overall context of the film, the Indian's trite-sounding platitude is actually a redemptive promise. Both Carver and Gideon have lost everything that made their life worthwhile. Now they have an opportunity to be restored. 

When Gideon approaches a vast dry lakebed, he prayers Ps 144:1:

Blessed be the Lord my strength,

Who teaches my fingers to fight,
And my hands to war.

And he is followed by Carver.

In the desert, they both meet meet a woman peddling her cure-all–expertly played by Anjelica Huston. She's named Madame Louise C. Fair. A pun on Lucifer. The devil's a snake-oil salesman. This scene trades on literary associations with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.   

She offers to sell each man a bullet in exchange for something else they need to cross the desert. By trading his horse for a bullet, Gideon has given up trying to elude his avenger. By trading his water for a bullet, Carver forfeits his chance at life for a chance to exact revenge on Gideon. 

When Carver catches up with Gideon, Gideon shoots him, but refuses to finish him off. He hands Carver his gun, giving Carver the chance to execute him. Gideon's action causes Carver to relent. 

Now that they are reconciled, they start off into the distance, only to vanish. That's because, at this point, they are both ghosts. 


  1. That was on earlier on AMC. It was too far into the movie for me to watch it at that point. I'll have to watch the whole thing at some other point

  2. I've never heard of this movie before this weekend. Flipping past AMC, this caught my attention because I noticed two Brits in the lead roles of a Western. I stuck with it because I picked up on the allegories. Brosnan is Roman Catholic and Neeson is... who knows. He likes the forms of Islam and Rome, and would therefore seem to hold an incoherent belief system. He got his film start with Pilgrim's Progress and the allegories of Seraphim Falls follow a similar pattern. Otherwise, it's an intriguing film. The critics missed it.

  3. I came here because i just finished looking at this great movie and i had the same thought, my google search was did Gideon and Carver died before they met the shamam? But didnt realise the peddlers name and its the relation wow what a great movie

  4. I enjoyed this movie. The cast was an amazing 'whos who' all-star team of supporting actors. There's hardly a face you won't recognize in this haunting western about revenge and humanity. As soon as Angelica Houston appeared on screen in her red dress, I knew she was the devil. Showing up in the final moments to play a part with these two broken souls, neither of which believe god is anywhere to be found. They are both given a choice of life or death, redemption or revenge, amd both choose the latter. The viewer is not shown the exact moment of their death but never-the-less, these two former soldiers died somewhere in the dessert, searching for something that could not be found.

  5. I noticed that Gideon drank from the water hole using his hands while Carver drank by putting his mouth in the water. See the story of Gideon in the bible to understand this allegory.