It’s clear why Werner Herzog would be drawn to a story like Salt and Fire’s—though nothing else about Salt and Fire is. Regarding the iconic director’s oeuvre, one could throw a dart gripped with one’s buttcheeks and accidentally hit a film as similarly opaque and befuddling as his latest non-documentary excursion, but such is the thrill of loving Herzog: Whether he’s lying or not (and he probably is—or not), he’s admitted to watching very few films over the course of his lifetime, and in turn the 74-year-old’s movies gasp with the kind of breathless remove from the world of filmmaking that might come care of someone who owes no allegiance to any industry, aesthetic or tradition not entirely of his own making.
If Herzog’s work tends to dwell in the act of confrontation—often placing humans in front of the barreling indifference of Nature, then watching as Nature carelessly flattens them—then his narrative cinema especially seems to confront the nature of whatever we typically understand as cinematic. And so Salt and Fire, one of three movies Herzog premiered on the festival circuit last year, is poignant and dumb in equal measure, whipping between plot-like structures with little concern for sense, pace, logic, engagement or really anything else that would make anyone want to see this movie, besides that Werner Herzog made it. Par for the (obstacle) course, really.
Much like its star’s Hawaiian shirt at an awards ceremony, best to treat Herzog’s latest Michael Shannon vehicle as some sort of off-putting joke. It begins with two ecologists, Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael García Bernal, charming and sleazy) and Dr. Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres, maybe not entirely sure of what kind of movie she’s in) called to Bolivia on behalf of the UN to address an impending environmental disaster. Instead of finding their academic hosts waiting for them at the airport, they’re effortlessly kidnapped by a cadre of over-armed mercenaries—though Bernal is given a brief scene to freak out futilely in an airport bathroom—and taken to the compound of Matt Riley (Shannon), whose otherworldly peepers we instantly recognize through the “I’m a Kidnapper” ski mask. Stilted philosophies follow between Laura and Matt, Shannon in his element giving precise gravitas to the incomprehensible sentences he’s saying, and unfortunately Bernal leaves the way he came in, literally shitting himself out of the movie.
Properly perplexed, the audience then rides shotgun into Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flat, where Matt ditches Laura, forcing her to take care of two blind Bolivian boys Matt also ditches, leaving them the meagre cover of a rock oasis and enough food, water and camping gear to survive for a few weeks. There, Laura grows to love her wards, occasionally (and ironically) filming cursory video diary entries with her tablet, which, against all known technological fortitude, maintains a charge for the duration of her unexplained exile. Laura also grows to viscerally respect the foreboding landscape of this foreign land, even though Herzog never once implies that, as an internationally respected ecologist, she wouldn’t respect it anyway.
Oh, and then, in a hilarious dénouement, Matt returns in the nick of time to explain to Laura why he did what he did, and Salt and Fire basically becomes Herzog’s Overboard: Port of Call: Bolivia. Matt reveals himself to be the CEO of the company whose world-destroying business poisoned the river by the village where these two boys, now his adopted sons, were raised, and that he kidnapped Laura into serving as ersatz mother because there was no better way to get her attention about the impending supervolcanic eruption and man-made disaster—or something. Ferres plays Laura’s response much as Goldie Hawn did to her character’s kidnapping in Overboard: Her heart full of Stockholm Syndrome, she understands the lengths Matt’s gone to in order to rectify the ills his company’s wrought, and seems ready to bone down forever with Weird Uncle Dad, continuing to believe that endless tickle fights with two young boys suffices for motherhood. Fin.
Herzog and co. seem totally tone deaf to how gross all of it is, which is much grosser than Gael García Bernal screaming about diarrhea, which is actually pretty funny. Meanwhile, Herzog and his trusty cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (this is their 14th film together) shoot the film’s first half like a standard action thriller, spinning the camera around tense tête-à-têtes, rarely resting, each frame color corrected in the teals and cyans we’ve come to expect from Michael Bay, Jaume Collet-Serra, Olivier Megaton and their ilk. There’s no real sign Herzog is interested in visually satirizing those films—Herzog isn’t the kind of director to waste his breath on subtly jabbing at other filmmakers—so the result is as jarring and shallow as the films Salt and Fire resembles. Once we’re taken to the salt flats, though, the Herzog we know wakes from his glossy reverie, embracing the astounding vastness of Nature in long, sweeping shots perfectly calibrated to wrench the most grandeur from the only visuals Herzog seems to think are worth aggrandizing. All else falls away when Werner Herzog is studying a magnificent landscape.
In fact, what may distinguish Salt and Fire from many of Herzog’s previous films is not its thriller-ish leanings, but how, in the end, Nature doesn’t really win. The doofus-y quirks of Man surpass the limitless scope of Planet Earth’s all-encompassing no-fucks-given toward the fate of its denizens, and the film’s final image—which will be the only thing here unspoiled—allows for many interpretations, all of which leads to the inevitability that Man is running out of frontiers to discover. Which isn’t to assume that Herzog has similarly lost his sense of cosmic curiosity, only that he’s less concerned than ever in helping the audience feel the same way. And once that feeling is gone, then so is the thrill that compels us to watch him even at his worst.
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog (screenplay); Tom Bissell (short story)
Starring: Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, Gael García Bernal, Lawrence Krauss
Release Date: April 7, 2017
Dom Sinacola is Sr. Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.