It's unlikely that David Von Ancken's neo-Western Seraphim Falls is going to garner the breathless praise that greeted John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's The Proposition last year, and that's a shame, because until the Hillcoat-like, sub-Peckinpah mysticism of its final half-hour, Seraphim Falls is far more awake and alive than The Proposition ever tries to be. It isn't as visually striking as Von Ancken's award-winning short film "Bullet In The Brain," or even his work on stylish crime shows like Cold Case and Without A Trace, but Seraphim Falls has a crispness and economy that few genre films can claim these days. Too many modern Westerns feel like they have to justify their existence by coming off as either portentous or satirical. Until it falls apart at the end, Seraphim Falls just is, as though it had been locked in a vault since the days when people made Westerns without thinking too much about it.
The film starts with a nearly dialogue-free 20-minute chase through a snowy forest, as bullet-riddled Pierce Brosnan tries to attend to his wounds, get something to eat, and cover up his tracks to prevent Liam Neeson and a posse of sharpshooters from overtaking him. Eventually, Von Ancken and co-screenwriter Abby Everett Jaques explain what's going on: Brosnan is a retired Union colonel responsible for the death of Neeson's wife and kids, and Neeson, a Confederate, has been hunting Brosnan ever since. Neeson tracks Brosnan from bitterly cold mountains to a blistering hot desert, stopping along the way at a series of familiar Old West locales: a lonely old cabin, a caravan of religious pilgrims, an outlaw-infested canyon, and so on.
Then Anjelica Huston shows up as a possibly imaginary traveling saleswoman, peddling patent medicines and cutting words about the true meaning of justice, and Seraphim Falls effectively smothers under a thick blanket of "Here's the point." Then again, those old Westerns are usually better remembered for their gripping showdowns and lyrical interludes, not their grinding plot mechanisms and big speeches. If Seraphim Falls' audience appreciates its good points and ignores an ending that tries too hard, they'll just be following a grand genre-buff tradition.