The opening scenes of Werner Herzog’s Salt And Fire are promising. United Nations scientist Laura (Ferres) and her colleagues are dispatched to study a pending man-made ecological disaster in South America known as El Diablo Blanco. Landing in an unnamed country they are immediately whisked away by pseudo-kidnappers under the command of industrialist Matt Riley (Shannon) and detained in his sprawling estate. So far, so good, but instead of the film developing into an interesting science versus capitalism debate Herzog instead seems to have scripted a collection of his random thoughts and musings.
Much of the problem comes from a strangely disjointed script. Lines feel entirely unconnected with those previous or following, and come across more as emotional outbursts than carefully constructed narrative. Combined with an excessive amount of awkward exposition that struggles to adequately explain the plot, Salt And Fire feels unfinished and in many ways rushed. You sense the cast are doing their best, but it feels uncomfortable at times to watch Michael Shannon struggle with what is a curiously flat character. Despite the central premise, Riley offers little tangible threat or menace, apart from the bizarre decision to abandon Laura in the middle of El Diablo Blanco with only his two handicapped sons for company. If he’s making a point, the one that stands out is emphasising his lack of parenting skills, but we sense that wasn’t what he was going for.
Herzog may have had more success had he produced Salt And Fire as part documentary. There is obviously a story here, and one that the director feels strongly about, but it quickly becomes lost amidst the convoluted, jargon-heavy dialogue. What you are left with is something that feels very Herzog-lite, almost as if the director ran a filmmaking competition where the challenge was to make something in his style and include a series of his quotes. What we have here then is the winner; a film that feels and looks like a Herzog film, but ultimately is lacking in any of the director’s style and bravado. A poor imitation if you will.
It seems likely that everyone involved will quickly consign Salt And Fire to the “well, it seemed like a good idea” section of their filmography and while it will hurt no-one’s career, it certainly won’t further. And feel sorry for Gael Garcia Bernal – after a few early scenes he quickly disappears into confinement at Riley’s estate suffering from diarrhoea, never to be seen again.
SALT AND FIRE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: WERNER HERZOG / STARRING: MICHAEL SHANNON, VERONICA FERRES, GAEL GARCÍA BERNAL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW