The opening passages of Seraphim Falls are elemental enough to startle: Gideon (Pierce Brosnan) makes camp on a snowy mountain until he takes a bullet in the arm from unexpected assailant Carver (Liam Neeson) and his small, grizzled posse. Gideon ducks, hides, and runs like hell, while Carver and his men proceed after him at what seems like a leisurely pace. No context, no explanation, and certainly not many words; it’s a good ten or fifteen minutes before Brosnan emits more than muffled wails and grumbles.
The film continues, a spare chase through the post-Civil War U.S. wilderness, with Gideon and Carver encountering flecks of history: outlaws, prairie missionaries, a sole Native American (and imagine the on-set confusion when Neeson and Brosnan, working with American accents, both encounter Irish rail workers). The stark landscapes — from those opening snowy mountains down to a vast, Gerry-worthy desert — are gorgeous, captured through the lens of cinematographer John Toll, a specialist in photographing what is already beautiful.
As the journey goes on, though, unnecessary details intrude on the initial wintry simplicity: first the dialogue, a stew of corn and gristle, then predictable backstory that turns the film into yet another meditation on the costs of revenge. Neeson and especially Brosnan are game to toy with their authority and charm, respectively, playing cold and quiet. The film’s caginess about who we’re supposed to like is intriguing at first, but allows the story to lurch forward beyond a logical endpoint. Like a lot of Western heroes, Seraphim Falls says more when it keeps its mouth shut.