Overview: After being kidnapped while on assignment in South America, U.N. ecologist Laura finds herself stranded with two blind children in the middle of a desert on the verge of thermal catastrophe. XLrator Media; 2016; Not Rated; 98 minutes.
Lost in Translation: One of my favorite stories about the making of Claudio Fragasso’s accidental camp masterpiece Troll 2 (1990) involves the disconnect between its English-speaking American cast and its Italian-speaking crew. Apparently, the script (written by Fragasso’s wife Rosella Drudi) received a rather blunt-force translation into English. When it came time to shoot, Fragasso insisted that the actors perform the screenplay verbatim. The result was enchanting: barely any of the lines sounded like things actual native English speakers would say. Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire too shares this strange quality of linguistic confusion. The difference is that the characters in Troll 2 all shared the same script. But every single character in Salt and Fire sounds like they worked off a different screenplay written in a different language that was then haphazardly shoved through Google Translate. There’s not a single line of dialogue that doesn’t sound odd, out of place, jarring, or downright alien.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Matt Riley, the CEO of a powerful company responsible for a potentially planet-threatening ecological disaster. Michael Shannon plays this quizzical executive in Salt and Fire, proving once and for all that he’s one of the best good sports in Hollywood—few actors this side of Peter Dinklage and Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending (2015) commit so entirely to such poorly written nonsense. He doesn’t speak his lines so much as pontificate them in lengthy monologues or shriek them in breathless, sudden outbursts, often in the same scene. Some of the most memorable include:
“I used to be afraid of the dark. But my grandmother told me something that’s stuck with me ever since. She said, “It’s okay to be afraid of the dark. But the real tragedy in life is when men are afraid of the light.”
“Do not try to come to the rescue of a tired world!”
“Truth is the only daughter of time.”
But my favorite has to be a line that so baffled me I rewound my screener copy of the film several times so I could better decipher what Shannon was actually saying. The closest approximation I could fathom, “The noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest.”
I’m Sure She’s Wonderful In Her Native German: These lines are all delivered to Laura (Veronica Ferres) in Salt and Fire, a U.N. investigative ecologist tasked with reporting on the very disaster caused by Riley’s company. Turns out she doesn’t have to do much investigating: she and fellow ecologist Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael García Bernal) are promptly kidnapped by Riley’s goons as soon as their plane touches down in South America. But before the film can even enter its second act Cavani gets incapacitated by chronic diarrhea and quietly disappears for the rest of the runtime, leaving us baffled as to why Bernal received top billing for the film alongside Shannon and Ferres if he was only going to be in about 15-20 minutes of it. But with him gone, Riley turns all his bizarre attentions on Laura, playing odd mind-games with her in his secluded, heavily guarded compound. They discuss art, philosophy, and all manner of things poorly befitting an armed hostage situation. It’s a small mercy that Shannon does the majority of the acting in these scenes, for Ferres gives an embarrassingly wooden, disaffected performance. She delivers all her lines in bored, rapid-fire monotone. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the abduction scene where she’s forced off the plane, sheepishly shouting in a single, unbroken stream without a twinge of emotion or a pause to breath: “What is this? Who are these men? I’m not going to get out here.”
Salt and Fire finally finds its footing in the second half after Riley strands Laura in the Bolivian salt flats with two blind boys. Here we find Herzog in his element: people undergoing spiritual, emotional awakenings at the hands of forbidden, unknowable environs and wildernesses. The film becomes Herzog’s answer to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), that Australian masterpiece about two city children who befriend an Aboriginal boy after getting abandoned in the Outback. Though Laura breaks every now and then for a video journal entry on her tablet—a tablet which miraculously remains charged despite surviving several days in the desert without an outlet—most of these scenes see her and the two boys struggling to survive in the hauntingly beautiful, undeniably alien world of the salt flats, a world whose hexagonal patterns and endless expanses seem custom made for Herzogian sensibilities. One wishes that the film hadn’t bothered with the confusing first half.
Overall: Though his documentaries remain as vital as any in his career, Salt and Fire signals the further deterioration of Werner Herzog as a narrative filmmaker. This realization is heartbreaking. The man who channeled antediluvian forces of dreamlike chaos and madness in the ’70s and ’80s hasn’t made a truly engaging fiction film since Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), itself a remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 classic. Few things add up in Salt and Fire. There are glimpses of the man who once brought opera to the rainforest in Fitzcarraldo (1982), but they can’t salvage this bumbling, unfocused mess.
Featured Image: XLrator Media