If there is a name synonymous with experimental filmmaking, Werner Herzog certainly makes the list, his filmography an eclectic mix of groundbreaking documentaries and what could only be described as challenging works of non-fiction and based-on-true-event movies. With Salt and Fire, his creative flare and unusual narrative approach remain evident in a film that is both frustratingly brilliant and curiously off-putting.
Arriving in South America, a U.N. scientific delegation that includes Fabio (Gael Garcia Bernal), Laura (Veronica Ferres) and Arnold (Volker Michalowski) intends to study an ecological disaster in Bolivia, but are not met by their contacts. Instead, the three are taken prisoner by armed, masked men who deliver them to a compound where a CEO named Matt Reilly (Michael Shannon) believes his company and several others, including Laura’s are responsible for the event and wants to make public the conspiracy. Non violent, Reilly engages in intellectual mind games and tours of the stricken areas with Laura all under an imposing volcano named Uturunku that he claims signals the end of mankind.
Written and directed by Herzog and based on a short story by Tom Bissell, Salt and Fire is in many ways an environmental documentary disguised as a thriller, with the director’s devastatingly captivating visuals the film’s singular greatest treat. We are taken to some truly awe-inspiring places and learn much about their significance, even as the story around it suffers in melodrama and obvious metaphors, which leaves Ferres, a German actress, to ostensibly narrate and offer exposition on the goings on, most often in an oddly descriptive manner. However, no matter her curious delivery, it is by default the most poignant of any other in a movie that is for much of the experience, peculiarly flat.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what Herzog’s message is and why it is presented as such with clearly purposeful ham-fisted dialogue and prophetic speeches centered around stunning imagery, and yet it pulls you into its ethereal envelope with a strange compulsion to see where it goes. A large part of the film takes place on a small island in the middle of Bolivia’s famous salt flats, where Reilly abandons Laura and two young blind boys with supplies for a few days, hammering the notion of man’s futile battle against nature with all the subtly of a volcanic eruption as the youths aren’t prepared or aware of the danger and the adult can’t make them understand.
Shannon has limited screen time and does his best with the role, one that is designed to appear villainous but of course is anything but, something that is transparent from the start. If anything, he is the ambition of what Herzog aspires for those who wreak havoc on the planet, to come forth and accept responsibility for the devastation, and perhaps that fantasy is what also inspired Herzog’s script. There is a character in the film named Krauss (played by famed theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss) who spends time in and out of a motorized wheelchair–for reasons I won’t divulge–who mentions on more than one occasion the hope that aliens will ascend upon the flats, and the film itself feels like a message to those visitors, crafted in rudimentary and expositional English in apologetic tones.
Salt and Fire is a noble and earnest film that feels deeply personal, but the one thing Herzog has always done (especially with his documentaries) is to make the world more accessible to all. Here, it only makes one wish the story were stripped away and Herzog had simply allowed his genius to brings us closer to the subject rather than keep us so distant.