'Salt and Fire'
Werner Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker when his unique imagination matches up with the right material. Given that the guy tends to make movies even faster and in greater numbers than Woody Allen, that means that his talents syncing up with his subject happens less and less frequently these days. Every now and then we end up with a Herzog film like’ Salt and Fire’, a project that was shot in 16 days based on a few fascinating locations and a screenplay that was probably written in half the time.
Here’s something that should surprise no one who has seen a Herzog movie before: ‘Salt and Fire’ studies the battle between man and nature. It’s about a UN delegation led by Veronica Ferres and Gael Garcia Bernal who are sent to investigate rare South American geological formations. As soon as they land, they get kidnapped by a group of masked men with machine guns and taken to a beautiful house in the middle of nowhere. Michael Shannon plays the rogue businessman in charge. He has a message to impart and his methods will be unconventional to say the least.
That might sound like the setup for an exciting thriller, but don’t get your hopes up. Herzog rarely dabbles in genre and here he almost seems to go out of his way to avoid giving his audience any thrills or entertainment. The dialogue that he has written is incredibly arch and stylized, almost impossible for humans to speak in a credible way. Only Shannon can pull it off with any degree of success. In a weird way, that might make the film the ultimate testament to his extraordinary talents as an actor. Everyone else stumbles through the words, which is kind of a problem since the movie is essentially composed of a series of dialogue scenes with shifting, beautiful locations.
The philosophical ruminations Herzog piles on get dense in word count and are almost impossible to discern in meaning. The story (if you can call it that) is essentially one long meandering mystery with a twist but no satisfaction. It plays out painfully slowly and frequently becomes laughable in ways that are hard to imagine anyone intended. It’s tough to say what Herzog was going for here. Perhaps even he doesn’t know. Clearly, it’s an experiment and a bit of a failed one. The imagery is remarkable, especially a beautifully odd image of rusted and rotting trains left in the middle of a desert. But that’s just not enough to carry the limp and over-long movie this time.
This is a big Herzog misfire. However, the filmmaker already made another two movies in this calendar year alone. It’s safe to assume that at least a one of those will be worthwhile enough to make up for whatever the hell this is.