In Salt and Fire, a bad movie but an intriguing vacation slideshow, Michael Shannon and Veronica Ferres play “characters” (unconvincing, undimensional) and speak “dialogue” (expository, flat). But they also drive across the remote salt flats of Bolivia, and they talk about the salt flats of Bolivia, and they stare at the dormant volcano Uturunku, and they talk about the destructive possibilities of Uturunku. Shannon’s character, “Matt Riley,” is CEO of “The Consortium,” the kind of name corporations always have in Off-Broadway plays and dystopian Young Adult novels. But Shannon is obviously channeling the film’s director, Werner Herzog, when he muses on the (semi-real) possibility of the volcano blasting human civilization into the void beyond history.
“Here lies a monster on the verge of waking,” says Shannon, offhandedly. “My guess is one day soon, everyone will know how to pronounce ‘Uturunku.’”
“Uturunku,” he says again.
If Salt and Fire were just Michael Shannon saying “Uturunku,” it wouldn’t be any better, but it would be powers of ten more enjoyable.
Ferres, a German actress, plays an ecologist named Laura. She’s been sent by the UN on a mission of great vague importance: Some sort of disaster at Lake Diablo Blanco. She has two colleagues, one a randy hedonist played by Gael García Bernal. (He’s also an executive producer, but expect no vanity.) He spends the movie sitting on an airplane, standing in an airport, sitting on another airplane, and getting diarrhea.
Bernal’s not in the film much; truthfully, nobody’s really here at all. Salt and Fire is most obviously about the pairing of Ferres and Shannon, a mysterious philosopher-capitalist who kidnaps the scientists for reasons that are fearsome, impenetrable, and inevitably silly. I guess you could say it’s a duel of wits, although they’re not really fighting, and there’s not much wit. Riley asks Laura what she thinks about Nostradamus, and he quotes Ecclesiastes, and he says things like “Truth is the only daughter of time” and “There is no reality, only views of reality.” Laura asks him questions like “What do you want from me?” and demands explanations by exclaiming “I want an explanation!”
Herzog must love Shannon. He cast the looming, wild-eyed actor in 2009’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a boldly thrill-free hostage thriller about matricide, Machu Picchu, sequoia trees, the Calgary theater scene, and flamingoes. My Son was meandering, inexplicable, and unforgettable. It made suburban San Diego look like the eternal battleground between madness and chaos, and it ended with Shannon saying one of the great total-nonsense final lines in cinema. (No context is required, as none really exists: “Whatever happened to my basketball???”)
Salt and Fire is meandering, too, but painfully slow. Herzog can be gleefully obtuse, but the film’s concepts are weirdly obvious and on-the-nose; people say things like “Big Data and Analytics doesn’t care about Renaissance predictions!” There’s some fun to be had with theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, more or less playing himself as a smiling crony who only uses a wheelchair when he’s tired of life. I realize I just wrote “fun” and “theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss” in the same sentence. Would you also believe that Krauss comes off as the most natural performer, in a film full of actual actors gone wooden?
Like a lot of Herzog’s recent work, Salt and Fire seems to move at whatever pace the filmmaker’s wandering intellect demands, cycling through myriad interests like books pulled at random off a library shelf. But Herzog’s “documentaries”—true-ish essay-films like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and last year’s droll Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World—are imbued with the filmmaker’s unique personality: That penetrating intelligence, the oddly childish glee of discovery. Although Salt and Fire adapted from a Tom Bissell short story, Shannon and Ferres throw out random factoids and philosophical koans. At 74, Herzog is working at the productive pace of a hungry young filmmaker, but that also means he’s writing dialogue worthy of an artily pretentious film student. “It’s okay to be afraid of the dark, but the real tragedy in life is when they are afraid of the light,” says Shannon. Oh, twist!
Maybe Salt and Fire would have benefited from more clarity, or maybe it should have just been a documentary. The movie builds to a great venture into a wasteland, with Laura stranded in the midst of a salty nowhere with two blind children. There are, at last, compelling visuals here, and they feel like reality captured. Herzog never shoots nature in a way that one could readily call beautiful; his camera lingers on trash littered across a desert plain, an image that starts depressing (“What hath man wrought?”) and becomes oddly optimistic (“At least man wrought something.”) Late in the film, the two blind children play with LEGO-ish blocks, and the camera pulls back to capture the vast salt expanse all around them.
It’s a perfect shot. The film around it feels half-considered, yet weirdly too justified. The mystery of why, precisely, Riley has taken Laura captive—why Riley is doing any of the strange things he does—start to feel dangerously meta. “Seriously,” asks the film, “Why is this film happening?”
There may be an answer, hidden in plain sight early in the film. On the plane bearing Laura and her team to their destination, you may spot a familiar man sitting one row behind them. It’s Werner Herzog, and he’s asleep. Salt and Fire suggests the drowsiness of an airplane nap, too tired to keep its eyes open but too uncomfortable to start really dreaming. C–