Michael Shannon and Werner Herzog reunite for this intriguing and highly allegorical eco thriller.
Werner Herzog’s recent narrative features have blurred the line between ‘interesting’ and ‘good’. Obeying an unconventional cinematic language and disturbing all the rules of genre, it’s often difficult to find any criteria to judge them against. Even the critically acclaimed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is supremely strange, though it is inarguably inventive and consistently entertaining.
At times Herzog’s Salt and Fire succeeds at being both these things. Highly allegorical, the film sees a UN scientific delegation abducted by the man responsible for a massive ecological disaster in South America. His plan is to teach them a lesson, but it’s not exactly clear what about. On paper the premise doesn’t sound particularly riveting, but sure enough Herzog’s continued thematic exploration of the often fraught cohabitation between man and nature comes through. As explored in his excellent new meta-documentary Into the Inferno, the director is not interested in biological phenomena per se, but rather in the people who are fascinated by them. His 2005 documentary Grizzly Man is probably the most successful variation on that schtick, relating as it does the story of a man who risked his life daily to hang out with the bears he adored, monumental in their indifference and ultimate savagery towards him.
Salt and Fire similarly follows people obsessed with and concerned about nature, but rather than tell a straightforward ‘story’ about environmental change, geopolitics or economic strife, this peculiar film has distinct daydream feel to it. Finding themselves in that strange moment after everything has already happened, where there is nothing to do but wait, the characters are not agents of change in the traditional narrative sense but are instead left to wax lyrical about nothing and everything at the same time. Their hopelessness is the ground for solemn statements (“Truth is the only daughter of time”) but also for absurdist humour, with the difference between the two forever rather thin.
As is often the case with the German director, it is unclear whether he means to be deliberately funny or not. The characters live in the long, slow expectation of the inescapable aftermath of things that have already happened and cannot be changed, be it the ecological disaster that has led to the creation of a large salt lake threatening to engulf the entire planet, or the imminent arrest of the corporate boss responsible for that disaster. In this world, action and story are simply an illusion and what begins as a pulsating ecological thriller with the abduction of the UN representatives soon gives way to a more ambiguous film.
Chief antagonist Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) abducts UN scientist Laura (Veronica Ferres) but only to make her realise the human implications of the pollution he himself has caused. Riley strands her on a cactus island in the middle of the salt lake with his own two sons, who have been blinded by the fumes emanating from the disaster for which he is responsible. His reasoning is only revealed in the film’s final moments in what is a rather weird reveal. Why would this man want to incriminate himself even further? But this is par for the course in a film in which no one acts as we expect them to. A villain in a wheelchair explains that he only uses it when he is “tired of life”, while Laura regularly takes selfies to check on her appearance as her poisoned colleagues succumb to bouts of violent diarrhea off screen.
This oddness only goes so far towards retaining our attention. But after an abrupt tonal shift, the documentary-style sequences which follow are significantly more rewarding. The film finds genuine poetry when it pays close attention to the daily life of Laura and the two blind boys on the lake. Often entirely wordless, this section stands out in sharp contrast with the rest of the film for its total lack of sarcasm and strong sense of the real, emphasised by regular Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger’s striking real-time footage. We eventually return to the lighter, weirder tone, but not before Salt and Fire has spanned several registers of intensity which are never meant to be taken at face value. So while this is a thoroughly wild, uneven film, the real pleasures lie in wondering what Herzog really had in mind.
By Josh Winning
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