Moviewise, January and February are supposed to be good for only one thing: catching up on all of the overrated prestige epics from the last couple weeks of December. So it's nothing less than a privilege when a pretty good film gets released into these cinematic hinterlands.

Not that Seraphim Falls will be making a whole lot of top 10 lists next year (unless 2007 really sucks for movies), but in a month when Epic Movie and Because I Said So dot the multiplex landscape like turds in some great cat's litterbox, a solid and satisfying old-fashioned genre piece is nothing to complain about. Because that really is what Seraphim Falls is, an old-fashioned genre piece; a creaky ol' Western made by people who have seen a lot of old Westerns.

It begins with elemental simplicity: it's winter in the Montana high country in 1868. A man with a wild beard and desperate look in his eyes (Pierce Brosnan) is hovering over a fire, eating a rabbit. He is shot in the shoulder. Immediately, the man - Gideon - runs, and the shooter, Carver (Liam Neeson), with his hired pack of vigilantes, gives chase.

This is a bold, almost nihilistic beginning for a story. We are not presented with context or plot or even much in the way of dialogue, but just Pursuit. And what a pursuit it is! This is not an action movie; it is not exhilarating or thrilling. It is a lumbering, brutal pursuit through deep snow and forest. David Von Ancken, a TV procedural veteran making his feature debut (he also co-wrote the script with another debutante, Abby Everett Jaques), has a remarkable natural facility with chase scenes, creating a tense series of raw physical moments. There is a sequence when Gideon falls into a river and over a waterfall, and the hypothermia nearly leaches out of the screen. Moments later, he digs a bullett out of his arm, with documentary-like precision: stripping off his wet shirt, gouging his hunting knife into his shoulder, biting into a leather satchel to keep from crushing his teeth. It's suberbly filmed and acted, visceral and savage in effect.

It's also worth mentioning how tactile this whole sequence is: perhaps because it was cold in Evanston, perhaps not, I could practically feel the winter cold. John Toll, a cinematographer whose skill is outweighed only by his awful taste in projects,* has been called into service, and he's doing what he does best: making outdoor settings look really bleak and really big and really physical, in this case using predominately natural lighting.

The chase moves constantly downward, pausing to corrupt the domesticity of a trapper's cabin, spilling out into the high plains and then further to the desert. The constant pursuit never ends, although it slows down whenever Gideon or Carver stumbles across some small trace of human civilization: a trapper's cabin, a mining camp, a Quaker wagon train. As they move further south, the film grows brighter, and bleaker, and in the end it's just the blue sky, the white desert, and hardly and shadow to be found.

It doesn't cost much to call a Western "mythic," but Seraphim Falls manages to earn that distinction quite nicely. Not because of anything within itself, but because of its relationship to an entire genre: it is nothing so much as a tour of the Western. There are elements of The Searchers in its imagery, of The Outlaw Josey Wales and Once Upon a Time in the West in its plot, and grace notes from many more films than I have space to list. Carver's chase of Gideon takes the two men from Montana to Nevada, from winter to summer, in what appears to be only a few days; this is because the Western covers all of those times and places, and this is a synthesis of all Westerns. It sacrifices plausibility for emotional truth. The truth, that is to say, of a myth.

There comes a point when the chase ends, and this is unfortunately not the end of the film. Throughout, there have been hints and innuendos that Gideon has wronged Carver, that it involved the war. Eventually, we learn this truth in the form of an extended flashback that is both needlessly literal and hyberbolic. Two lines of dialogue could have achieved the exact same plot function without so badly killing the momentum of the film, robbing its most important scene of any real emotional impact.

Even this isn't enough, because for its final ten minutes, the film abandons myth and turns to the similar but far-too-different world of mysticism for the men's journey through a desert, and Seraphim Falls rather abruptly becomes a C-list knockoff of Dead Man. This would almost be tolerable, except that in its final few seconds, the film becomes literal about its mysticism, and stops making any sense whatsoever. Such a pronounced and disastrous disconnect between the beginning and end of a film is rare and tragic.

Beyond the story...but there isn't much beyond the story. I've already mentioned the cinematography, and it is, to be sure, iconic. Every Western is at least in part a celebration of vistas, and John Toll is just really damn good at that. There is nothing ever wrong with the look of the film, even as the screenplay is running off the rails. Pierce Brosnan and Liam Neeson are both fine actors, and fine in their roles; but these are not characters so much as elements, and while in the hands of a poor actor this could have been awful indeed, there's not much great acting to be done with this script, beyond a few brilliant individual moments early on. I don't tend to think about such things, but the score by Harry Gregson-Williams is remarkably subtle and evocative.

Even without the ending, this wouldn't be a film for the ages; it exists largely to point out how much better movies were forty years ago. That's both noble and disposable, but it's going to be several months before we see any trace of an American movie with this kind of craftsmanship and ambition. Enjoy it while you can.


*Everything from Legends of the Fall to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, although he did shoot a genuine masterpiece: The Thin Red Line.