Pain and suffering. No, those aren’t themes in the movie, it’s just what I felt while watching Werner Herzog’s narrative feature film at TIFF this year. The man is a legend, an icon, a talented film maker. A talented documentary film maker. His stab at narrative cinema was an atrocity worse than the one detailed in the film.
Salt and Fire’s premise: Some corporation is wreaking havoc in South America. The landscape has significantly changed, the salt flats growing exponentially. A volcano that runs underneath shows signs of erupting as a result, which would mean a global disaster. Like a wiping out of humanity disaster. So, in a strange bid to fix things, a misguided man (Michael Shannon) kidnaps a scientist (Veronica Ferres) and abandons her on the salt flats along with two blind boys.
It’s such a flimsy excuse of a story it’s hard to take it seriously. Gael Garcia Bernal plays another scientist in the delegation, but his character is given massive diarrhea and written out of the script 5 minutes in. Yes, you read that right. We were flabbergasted too.
The film has worse symptoms than just an unbelievable premise and a bad case of the runs. It’s also got the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in my entire life. At first I wanted to chalk it up to Herzog not being an Anglophone (still, I believe there are things you can do about that, such as hire writers). The “dialogue” (I loathe to even call it that) sounds suspiciously like the narration of a documentary. It’s textbook and stilted and has no business coming out of a person’s mouth.
Salt and Fire was billed by TIFF as an “ecological thriller” but we got it straight from the horse’s mouth that this was not the case. Boy was it not the case. To suggest that there is a thrill to be had here (other than the panicked state of Bernal’s panties) is laughable. Most of the film is just unending shots of salt. There’s a good 10 minutes just watching the kids play Trouble (the board game) for the blind.
I wondered why in the hell Michael Shannon, celebrated and usually reliable actor, would sign on to such an abortion. I have a sneaking suspicion it might for the same reason I attended the screening – to get close to Werner Herzog. And the truth is, seeing him in person was everything I hoped it would be. He was very Herzogian. He’s a man full of fire and passion. He is animated and dynamic and tireless. And as it turns out, he claims that the things I hated most about the movie are things he did on purpose.
He called the dialogue “highly stylized” (check out the comments for segments from his Q&A). Highly stylized! My highly stylized ass. He also called the film “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema.” Which is admittedly a nice way of saying “I have no idea what I’m doing.” The story is so passive that it fails to engage its main theme. We never feel ignited. We never really even understand what’s going on. Does the movie have a purpose? Do the characters?
Werner Herzog is unapologetic, and I like him that way. But in the future, he and I should both stick to his documentaries.