Werner Herzog's Salt and Fire Fails To Light Up Screens


Written by Oliver J. Hunt
04 Thursday 04th May 2017

After a string of much maligned feature films, Werner Herzog’s latest offering Salt and Fire fails to burn brightly. Even with the always-engaging Michael Shannon as the film's antagonist, the rest of the cast seems to be sleepwalking through this eco-thriller.

Opening with a masked man leading a blindfolded woman through a remote South American villa, we are soon introduced to our straight faced, no-nonsense protagonist Laura Sommerfield (Veronika Ferres) as she recounts the events which have landed her in hot water. Sent on an emergency ecological reconnaissance mission from the United Nations, with Gael García Bernal’s sex-pest co-worker Fabio and Volker Michalowski’s buttoned up Dr. Arnold Meier, the group are quickly abducted by balaclava wearing goons. Even though these tense moments never satisfactorily climax, Salt and Fire's introduction ultimately contains some of the film's most interesting moments.

Once we have caught up with the story, however, the film's true colours begin to show. Shannon’s ecological guerrilla Matt Riley begins to connect with Laura and brainwashes her into believing his cause; however, the film's pace slows to a crawl. We soon discover that the team of scientists were sent to the unspecified South American region to assess a ticking-time-bob of a volcano, one which threatens humanity's very survival. 

The situation's drama isn't lost on the characters; important artists and historical figures are endlessly quoted in eye-rolling moments, the pretentiousness only equalled by much of the cast's stale delivery. Whilst Bernal (who really has little to do here) attempts to bring some levity to the interactions, he too delivers haughty ‘quote for the day’ dialogue. 

The third act boasts a dramatic left turn which actually brought the movie into a somewhat interesting focus, where you see Tom Bissell's influence. With a flat resolution, however, the film ultimate feels like a dry run for something with more grandeur. Perhaps as a short film Bissel's material could have been elevated more? Or perhaps if Herzog focused on the final elements of the narrative, which clearly interested him the most - the idea of (wo)man vs. nature - then maybe the whole film might have stirred something more in its audience.

It's hard to even contemplate who the intended audience; art-house devotees who crave the Herzogian surreal-ness peppered through his narrative features? Or did he want to make a contemporary ecological thriller for a wider audience? Whatever the case is, the movie never regains its balance from the awkward acting and slow pacing. With Herzog’s recent documentary work finding the audience it deserves, ultimately Salt and Fire fails to deliver on the promise of something more thrilling. His recent narrative output leaves much to be desired.

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