In movies like The Tailor of Panama and The Matador, Pierce Brosnan has received credit, and justly so, for letting his belly hang out and for mocking his expensively debonair lounge-lizard twinkle. Yet what no one will quite come out and say is what a damn fine actor he is. Just watch him in the opening minutes of Seraphim Falls, a brooding Western revenge psychodrama that’s set right after the Civil War.
As Gideon, a former Union captain who is being chased by a man with a personal vendetta, Brosnan survives a gunshot and then a plunge into icy waters. When he emerges, traipsing through a wintry mountain forest (the film was shot in New Mexico), he’s so frozen it takes all the strength and concentration he has to extract the gunpowder from three bullets to light a campfire, then to use a knife to wedge the bullet out of his wound. Brosnan, swathed in a Grizzly Adams beard, makes you feel every frigid shiver, every tremble of his hands. As he performs surgery on himself in a scene that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, he doesn’t wing it with a wince; he brings the pain home. This is more than an acting stunt — it plugs you right into the movie. And that’s a good thing, since Seraphim Falls is one of those films that you might call no-frills. Another word for it would be basic. Or maybe just slow-moving.
Gideon’s escape, and his pursuit by Morsman Carver (Liam Neeson), a recessive former Confederate colonel who carries a rifle as long and lean as he is, results in a weirdly austere art-pulp hybrid: McCabe & Mrs. Miller meets Rambo. Brosnan has never looked this spooked. He gets you on his side, even though it’s not until the end that we learn if Gideon is a good man. Neeson, who has more presence doing nothing than most actors do playing Hamlet, gives Carver hints of a psycho drive beneath his righteous scowl. He and Brosnan are supremely well-matched foils, though I do wish that the filmmaker, David Von Ancken, had lent his sparsely mythic tale just a twinge of something…new.