High in the Ruby Mountains in 1868, a solitary man over a campfire meal is alerted to intruders by his tethered horse. Bullets flick the snow around him. Wounded, he abandons all belongings and runs for his life. Pursued by a group of five men, his survival will depend on his one remaining weapon, a bowie knife, and the success of hit and run tactics, not only in the chase but also in the various encounters with assistance and resistance from others, including homesteaders, an Irish gang protecting railway builders, three young bank robbers and a wagon train of missionaries. The leader of the pursuing group is Carver, ex-Confederate Colonel, who, three years after its end, is bent on revenge for a Civil War crime. Though he holds his prey, ex-Union officer, Gideon, responsible, flashbacks reveal that responsibility lies more in the confusion of war. The final confrontation will take place in a desert, but not before the men trade everything but what they need to resolve the chase with an old Indian, Charon, and a travelling saleswoman, Madame Louise.
Of the few Westerns made since the millennium, Seraphim Falls is the most distinctive. For most of its length, it plays with a familiar generic chase structure, motivated by revenge. In the earlier The Bravados (1958), the hero seeks vengeance for the murder of his family by hunting down men he discovers too late were innocent of the crime. In the later The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the hero is not the hunter but the hunted. In Seraphim Falls, heroism dissolves, signalled visually by the similar clothing of the two central protagonists. Carver is bent on vengeance and Gideon is his prey, but though Gideon accepts responsibility for the wrong he has done, his guilt is less certain, and his own personal loss comparable. That Carver’s obsessive quest is sustained only by Gideon’s life makes him as much sinner as saint. Indeed, the religious metaphor is indicative. The titular Seraphim Falls is the name of the place that initiates the fateful chase, but it also describes the fallen angels that are the central protagonists, both culpable and innocent, both fallen from grace.
Neither is a classic Western hero. Though attuned to the frontier wilderness, to its nature and Native America, they are no agents of Eastern values: instead, they deny all society. And their guns, conventionally symbols of justice in the absence of organised law, are threats but barely used. As Carver at one point says: ‘Nobody can protect nobody in this world’. Gideon’s traumatic experience of war has led him to reject white society for the isolation of the mountains, the pure white snow of his surroundings a symbol of his search for redemption. This isolate mountain man is then literally on the run, armed ironically only with a hunter’s knife, chased still by the demons of his nightmares but now also of his past. Carver has no pity – ‘Let him bleed’ – and he mourns not the loss of mercenary companions with neither sense nor loyalty. There is no hero here, only victims.
The ending is a descent: physically, across changes of magnificent scenery, into the low desert savannah, but also metaphorically – echoing the climax of Greed (1924) – into Hell. God ‘sees your sin’ claims one of the religious travellers of Gideon, but in the same company Carver will deny it: ‘Ain’t no God out here’. First, Charon, dressed like a ‘Christian Indian’, whose waterhole replaces the river of the Greek myth, will offer what is needed to continue, complete with mysticisms about ownership and theft. Then Lucifer herself, Madame Louise (C. Fair, according to the sign on the back of her quack medicine wagon), will offer what they can kill with, rather than what they need to survive.
That the film is also allegorical is made explicit in its extraordinary climax, borrowing from the supernatural qualities of late Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Dollar series and Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). Romance Westerns use the Civil War to explore the foundation myth of America, the formation in sacrifice of United rather than divided States. But the dystopia of Seraphim Falls sees in the Civil War only the pitiless tragedy of division, a nation built on violence, trauma and death.