Prolific filmmaker Werner Herzog returns to TIFF with his feature film, Salt and Fire. The cast includes heavyweights like Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal, but even they cannot rescue this film from Herzog’s perennial flaws of stilted dialogue and poor plot construction.
The film follows a UN scientific team sent to investigate an environmental disaster in Bolivia. Strange things occur upon arrival, and after some manipulation, the team is abducted and taken to a remote hacienda. The film splits away from the team, and we follow its leader, Laura (Veronica Ferres), as she tries to figure out why the team has been kidnapped. She meets the leader of the plot, businessman Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), who gradually reveals his secrets and his plans for Laura. Themes of environmentalism and capitalism-run-amok unveil themselves over the course of the film.
The film’s cinematography by long-time Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger is its best asset. The vast expanse of the Uyuni salt flats is shot in dramatic aerial shots, and often, the camera work echoes the best of Emmanuel Lubezki’s collaborations with Terrence Malick. Unfortunately, the beauty of the film cannot hide its many flaws. Bernal is wasted as a member of the research team whose on-screen contributions consist of groping Laura, getting diarrhea, and disappearing within the first third of the film. Ferres and Shannon give solid performances, but cannot rise above the incredibly stilted dialogue. There is little feeling or emotion in the delivery of highly dramatic, almost operatic lines. As with any Herzog screenplay, it’s chock-a-block with philosophical musings, but unlike in his best works, here they are eye-rollingly painful and often unintentionally funny. When Shannon looks into the camera and recites the title of the film in that serious, Shannon-esque way, I groaned audibly. The film feels rushed, and at worst, it feels unnecessary. Shannon’s kidnapping plot is full of holes, making Herzog’s plot entirely fall to pieces. I think Herzog needs to slow down his output (which is surpassing Woody Allen levels now) and take a bit more time to craft the gems we know he is capable.
Friday, Sept. 16, 12:00pm @ TIFF Bell Lightbox
Saturday, Sept. 17, 3:15pm @ Scotiabank