A scientist blames the head of a large company for an ecological disaster in South America. But when a volcano begins to show signs of erupting, they must unite to avoid a disaster.
A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with one of the greatest directors of all time, Mr. Werner Herzog, at a special screening of his stunning doc, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” We talked about “beautiful melancholy,” the future of humanity, and how his films may, like the titular cave, eventually become chronicles of our own forgotten dreams. He confessed that he will keep making films until he’s taken away in a straight jacket; I told him, as long as he documents his own demise… Made him laugh – and made my month.
There’s no denying the director’s legendary status. From 1972’s almost-wordless “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” which follows a Spanish conquistador – played by Klaus Kinski, with whom the director had a tumultuous relationship, later depicted in the 1999 doc “My Best Fiend” – through the Amazonian jungle, to the remote icebergs of the stunning 2007 documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” Herzog has consistently churned out audacious studies of humans pushed to the very edge of sanity. Himself a provocateur and renowned prankster, as well as a philosopher and prophet, Herzog casts a unique outlook that’s both wondrous and pessimistic, lyrical and pragmatic – and at times, very, very funny. Though lately his focus has been primarily on documentaries, an occasional detour – a feature film or a bizarre acting choice (e.g. the villain in “Jack Reacher”) – tends to pop up in the fascinating man’s vast filmography.
The latest one marks Herzog’s second collaboration with Michael Shannon, after 2009’s bonkers drama “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.” At least on paper, it’s the definition of a match made in heaven: an eloquent-but-unhinged director and one of the most intense actors working today (I mean, Shannon made his scenes in freakin’ “Man of Steel” resonate with a subliminal dread). “Salt and Fire,” however, is not quite on that “Herzog/Kinski” level of pure cinematic lunacy, of controlled chaos. Rather tame by the helmer’s standards, this environmental drama/thriller seems to be at conflict with itself, as exemplified by its two wildly disparate – both narratively and tonally – halves.
A brief intro sees Laura (Veronica Ferres), a United Nations professor, captured by a group of accommodating masked terrorists, who take off her handcuffs and offer her tea. The film flashbacks to Laura traveling to South America with her colleagues: creepy Fabio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and stoic Dr. Meyer (Volker Michalowski). They’re a delegation, on a mission to study an “ecological disaster” – the enigmatic Diablo Blanco, which “will soon be a household name.”
Before she can say “chlorobenzene”, Laura and her team are abducted by a mysterious, terrorist-like group of masked men, led by Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the “CEO of a Consortium” and a “prisoner of his own plans”. Matt’s goals are hazy; he tells Laura that “there’s no reality, only views and perceptions”. They proceed to engage in prolonged conversations that touch upon subjects of art, the search for identity, family (“having children invites tragedy”) – until she is whisked away to the second half of the film, where the tone abruptly changes.
Matt reveals that the Matt – sorry – man-made effects on the environment may soon be overshadowed by the apocalyptic threat of Nature Itself – a nearby gigantic volcano that could erupt at any moment (“Here lies a monster on the verge of waking.”). He then drops Laura off in the middle of nowhere with two little blind boys, as an endurance test of sorts – and an astonishing sequence of spiritual transformation follows, reveling in silences: just Laura, the kids, and eternity itself. Though the film’s anticlimactic conclusion is so earnest it verges on preposterous, the final shot, bringing to mind Voyager 1, exploring space millions of miles away, lingers long after the credits roll.
Filled with non-sequiturs (e.g. a character exclaims, “I forgot my toothbrush!” at an odd moment), the film itself resembles a non-sequitur in Herzog’s career. It seems to have several aims: to steadily build tension, to be an existential parable, to tackle hefty issues of environmental pollution and natural disasters… As a whole, it never quite gels – there’s never a real threat, the evil guys switching between physically hurting their prisoners and allowing them to take pictures on their iPads – nor does the thoughtful, haiku-like second half ever truly coalesce with the action-y first.
This is the kind of film where a flight attendant (Anita Briem) politely inquires, “And what, if I may ask, is your joyful party all about?” Fabio describes the line at the airport as “listless, torpid, moribund…” At another point, he exclaims, “There is a horde of protozoea running around my intestinal tract!” The wheelchair-bound Krauss (Lawrence Krauss), one of Matt’s henchmen, gets all the best lines, which must be heard to be believed (okay, here’s one: “I only use the wheelchair when I’m tired of life.”). Alexander the Great, Nostradamus and Eclesiastés are all quoted in abundance. As literate as it is, the dialogue comes off as over-written, a bit clunky, partially due to the some of the actors’ delivery.
That’s not to say the film isn’t filled with wondrous little moments. An abandoned “alien train” sequence is almost trance-inducing, as is the stunning cinematography by Herzog’s regular DP, Peter Zeitlinger. His shots of vast salt fields, consuming our Earth at a rapid pace, scored to Ernst Reijseger’s uncanny, tormented music, will sear themselves into your heads. Under Herzog’s ambitious direction, this triller morphs into a somewhat muddled, unintentionally funny, but endlessly watchable rumination on humanity, and how we are overshadowed by the sheer power of nature, retaliating against us.
Shannon is unhinged, delivering lines like “‘We’ is basically ‘me’,” or “I bow to you” with much fervor and conviction. Ferres has a forceful presence, tall and determined and beautiful. Her moment to truly shine comes in the film’s second, melancholic half. Bernal is barely there at all, playing a weasel – the actor probably leaped at the opportunity to list Herzog amongst the greats he’s worked with, no matter how small the part.
Whatever the film’s flaws may be, they are spawned from ambition and a need to express intimate statements by one of our living legends – and that by itself is worth acknowledging. “Salt and Fire” marks another volcanic fusion of two major contemporary cinema icons, with mixed but never-less-than-entertaining results. “It’s okay to be afraid of the dark,” a character says. “But the real tragedy in life is when men are afraid of the light.” Herzog is one of the brave cinematic souls to wholeheartedly embrace the light.
P.S. For those of you interested in exploring Mr. Herzog’s riveting body of work, here’s my personal “Top 5 List”, which may not fully reflect the artist’s scope, but will surely provide a proper introduction to his magnificently oddball fare:
- “Stroszek” (1977) – an underrated, hilarious critique of the American Dream, and a great entry point.
- “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) – Herzog makes Kinski drag a giant ship into a jungle; need I say more?
- “Grizzly Man” (2005) – perhaps the director’s best, most minimalist, poignant and multidimensional doc.
- “Rescue Dawn” (2006) – teaming up with Christian Bale to tell a real-life story of a captured U.S. fighter pilot in Vietnam, it sees Herzog at the peak of his “man vs. himself” mode.
- “Encounters at the End of the World” (2009) – while “Grizzly Man” may be the “best’, this one’s my favorite – a nature doc, seen through Herzog’s existential prism (“Is there such a thing as insanity in a penguin?”).
On VOD and iTunes April 4th and in theaters April 7th