SALT AND FIRE
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael García Bernal, Volker Michalowski, Lawrence Krauss, Danner Ignacio Márquez Arancibia, Gabriel Márquez Arancibia
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 4/7/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 6, 2017
Beginning as a thriller about a political abduction and ending on notes that would be better suited to a romantic comedy, Salt and Fire is a hodgepodge of inexplicable characters, half-considered ideas, and a rambling plot. The movie is the brainchild of writer/director Werner Herzog, who, by now, should be expected to break the rules. What we don't expect from him is something this hollow, this devoid of considered thought, and this simplistic in purpose.
Herzog can ramble all he likes, as long as there's something behind it. This time around, the lesson is that arguments about ecological damage or impending natural doom cannot stand on data and figures alone. There must be a human face behind the numbers for anyone to listen.
This is stated quite bluntly by a character in the final moments of the movie. In terms of theme, it's about as uninspired as it sounds. In terms of the character who makes the point, the statement essentially transforms him into an idiot, who has devised a complicated plan for a simple result. Just on the face of it, he could have achieved his end goal just as well with a strongly written letter and some photographs.
It's an obvious attempt by Herzog's screenplay (based on a short story by Tom Bissell) to pull an old-fashioned bait-and-switch on the audience. It begins with the at-gunpoint abduction of a team of international scientists, becomes a long philosophical debate, and takes a lengthy diversion into a tedious tale of survival in the wilderness. It's nearly insufferable before the resolution. The resolution just makes the whole affair laughable.
The scientists are led by Dr. Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres), who is in Bolivia to investigate a manmade natural phenomenon known as "Diablo Blanco," a salt flat that spreads for miles and continues to expand. After some confusion at the airport, she and her partners (played by Gael García Bernal and Volker Michalowski) are captured by a team of armed mercenaries led by Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) and brought to a compound in the middle of nowhere.
Matt is the CEO of the company that caused the salt flat, but he doesn't want to cover it up any longer. In theory, this is the end of the story, because the protagonist and antagonist have no conflict—except the whole abduction thing, obviously, which doesn't make any sense once Matt's motives are revealed. To force conflict upon the situation, Herzog's screenplay dithers through a series of conversations between Laura and Matt, featuring quotes from the Bible and Nostradamus. Also participating on occasion is Matt's sidekick Krauss (Lawrence Krauss), who sits in an electric wheelchair—but only when he's tired of life.
The discussions, which seem endless, go nowhere of importance to the story or the characters, since everyone seems to be in agreement except for the semantics. Additionally, Herzog has a way with this dialogue that makes these characters sound as if they're cribbing notes from various lectures. The actors do what they can, but even a performer as wily with line delivery as Shannon sounds stilted and bored. By the way, the topic of aliens arises more than once, including at the very end of the movie—by which time we hope they're real and hostile toward these characters.
There's a bit more to Matt's motive, although not much. In addition to the devastated landscape, he's concerned about an apparently dormant volcano in the heart of the salt flats. This is how the survival-in-the-wild part of the story comes to pass: Matt takes Laura on a tour of the place and dumps her near a vegetative island with a couple of nearly blind boys with only some eight jugs of water, some food, and a tent to protect them (not to mention her tablet computer, which seems to have an eternal battery). Once we figure out the nature of the kids, Matt's scheme becomes even more absurd.
The time in the desert is the movie's centerpiece, and it goes on and on with the lack of direction of loose improvisation (Minutes are devoted to watching the trio play a board game). Herzog's making a few salient points with Salt and Fire—about humankind's inability to survive the results of its own actions and, though the threat of the volcano, of nature's apathetic revenge upon us, no matter what we do. It's too bad he has made a movie this awful in order to make those points.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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