Like Sean Connery (whose Western films I recently reviewed), Pierce Brosnan is known predominantly for playing James Bond and other suave roles that capitalize on his handsome looks coupled with effortless charm. And, like Connery, besides being a solid actor, he has delved into Westerns sparingly with just two forays that deserve mentioning, both with less than boffo box office results. That’s a shame because Brosnan is adept at playing gritty, hardened characters.
In Seraphim Falls, Gideon (Brosnan) is being hunted by Carver (Liam Neeson) near Ruby Falls circa 1886. He's been wounded, nearly drowns, after a harrowing plunge over a waterfall, and must use a knife and spare bullets to start a fire before he succumbs to hypothermia. You can feel the desperation as he fumbles with the ammunition to stay alive. An edge of your seat opening with Brosnan's taut acting, among the best of his career, alone make it worth the view.
This heart-pounding action then morphs into the back story where we discover that Gideon is an ex-Union captain who has traveled west to escape a brutal past while Carver is a former Confederate, who, for very personal reasons, can't let go of what happened during the war. The back-and-forth and one-upmanship between these two foes reminds me a little of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific, except in the John Boorman film, you have a sense that Marvin and Mifune may reach a common ground whereas in Falls there is no sense that closure is in the cards for Gideon and Carver.
Brosnan is equally balanced with Liam Neeson who is one of the great thespians of our time, his characters burn with the sheer consuming intensity that he injects to each performance. In Falls, the part could have easily been a one-dimensional, man-hunter type throwaway, but Neeson delivers an in-depth characterization of the conflicted Carver. Neeson says he was steeped in Western mythology growing up compared his character, Carver, to Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, “he's totally governed by this idea of revenge where he’s practically lost his humanity.”
Maybe it’s because I’ve always appreciated man-against-nature films like Jeremiah Johnson and Cast Away that I recall this 2006 revenge Western film a little more fondly than other reviewers. Example: Los Angeles Times gave a mixed review stating that it ran out of ”gas during an overlong allegorical final section.”I don’t agree and my only gripe is the flashback that propels the retaliation storyline is stagy and the emotional tug they were going after stops short. Oddly, I found this crucial scene where Carver’s family perishes to be as close as you can come to observing the rough draft of a story before any prose layers have been added for depth. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the film, Seraphim Falls is a thought-provoking Western with swift action, fine acting, and a moral story that sticks with you long after the final scene.
Somehow, the life of Archibald Belaney (September 18, 1888 – April 13, 1938), aka Grey Owl, had escaped me until I watched Richard Attenborough’s 1999 film starring Brosnan in the title role. The story opens toward the end of Belaney’s life with a reporter discovering the believed to be Native American Grey Owl was in fact the British born Belaney, who chides the journalist, “What took you so long?”
From there the film jumps back to pivotal moments in Grey Owl’s life: his conversion from well-to-do European to self-sufficient Indian, then from the life of trapper to a conservationist, and the people who had an impact on him along the way (the most influential being Anahareo).
When Grey Owl meets Gertrude Bernard (played by the lovely Annie Galipeau), also called Anahareo and Pony, she wants him to be her guide through the mountains. He leaves without her, but being a determined woman, she finds a guide to escort her to Owl’s cabin. In a dramatic scene, as she is following Owl across an ice-covered lake, she doesn’t follow his advice and plunges into the freezing waters. He rescues her, they eventually fall in love, and remain together for a number of years. Over this time, she convinces Owl to change his harsh trapping ways (after raising two motherless baby beavers and growing very attached to them) and he converts to a conservationist. He came to believe that “the trap, the rifle, and poison” would someday result in “the Dwellers in the forest to come to an end too.” Because of his popular tour guides, a wealthy publisher—aware that he’s tapped into a goldmine—approaches the charismatic Grey Owl to pen a biography, which he accomplishes with Anahareo’s encouragement.
As a boy, Attenborough met the real Belaney and it’s obvious the iconic figure had left a positive impression on the future academy award-winning director who created this heartfelt biopic. Brosnan thoroughly immerses himself in the role and his brooding depiction of Belaney made me forget that at one time he played the wise-cracking, charismatic thief in the television series Remington Steele.
Seraphim Falls and Grey Owl are minor films in the genre but both are highly entertaining, due in no small part to the talent behind them and none deserve more recognition than Pierce Brosnan with his committed, multi-faceted portrayals. Makes me hope he heads down some wild trails again.