Over the past few years it seems that Werner Herzog has found himself more comfortable making documentaries than he has at crafting dramas. His last dramatic film, the widely panned Queen of the Desert, languished without a distributor for over two years before finally being released this month. At the same time, however, his most recent dramatic film, Salt and Fire, is opening at the exact same time. If you had to make a choice between the two competing Herzog films, there’s really not much deliberation to be had as Salt and Fire is the far superior film, a drama with a scientific and philosophical nature in its story of an ecological disaster in South America. Though head and shoulders above Queen of the Desert, Salt and Fire still pales in comparison to the Herzog’s recent documentaries and his classic dramas.
Dr. Laura Somerfeld (Veronica Ferres) is part of a team of ecologists along with Dr. Fabio Cavani (Gael García Bernal) and Dr. Maier (Volker Michalowski) headed to South America to study an ecological disaster and provide their findings to the United Nations. These three scientists don’t make it their destination before being hijacked by a gang of armed men in masks, led by the menacing, wheelchair bound Krauss (Lawrence Krauss). They’re separated and transported to a secluded compound where Dr. Laura Somerfeld meets her captor, Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of the consortium responsible for the disaster she’s there to investigate.
The first half of Herzog’s adaptation of Tom Bissell’s short story is some of the most compelling cinema that the German filmmaker has put on the screen in a long time. We’re introduced to a number of factors and there’s an ambiguity to where all of this is leading as it continually escalates. The audience knows there’s an ecological disaster, though the exact nature of it is withheld. The audience knows that Matt Riley is guilty but are left to wonder why he’s taking such extreme measures in kidnapping a team of scientists. The audience knows there’s just something not quite right about Krauss. Herzog leaves you on edge for the entirety of the first half of Salt and Fire, and his probing wide angle lenses add a sense of unease to the central mystery.
Herzog is unable to maintain that intensity as Salt and Fire takes its turn towards explaining the factors at play. A lake has dried up and left nothing but a salt flats that expand as far as the eye can see. The salt is expanding as a nearby volcano is shifting. Matt Riley sees this as an existential threat to life on Earth and he fears that the salt may soon cover the globe. It’s an obvious flight of fancy that there’s an executive who has pillaged the environment and feels remorse. This is followed by Matt Riley abandoning Dr. Somerfeld in the salt flats with two young boys, leaving them with scant supplies to survive in the wasteland. This is where Salt and Fire loses all of its tension and momentum and languishes in barren stretch of land.
The collaboration between Werner Herzog and Michael Shannon brings out the best in both, with Shannon bringing a fire and intensity to Herzog’s script that keeps the film feeling vital even if the dialogue is heavy-handed. It’s not a coincidence that Salt and Fire falters when Shannon isn’t on the screen. Veronica Ferres is a captivating presence at times, usually when under duress, but she’s not able to able to carry the film on her own when her character is separated from humanity and her inquisitive voiceover is all that is there. The big surprise of Salt and Fire is the fascinating performance by Lawrence Krauss, a real life scientist with little to no acting experience. Not playing a scientist, Krauss is unsettling and welcoming simultaneously, and consistently stealing the scenes which he’s in. Don’t expect to see much of Gael García Bernal, as he quickly fades from the film once the scientists are split.
Salt and Fire doesn’t stand among Hezog’s best nor does it stand among his worst. There are big ideas in the film that look at how we plan to tackle the environmental challenges humanity is facing, but Herzog undercuts these notions with a bit of wide-eyed idealism, something that seems somewhat out of character. Within Salt and Fire you can see a bit of the influence of Herzog’s recent documentaries with a volcano and a tablet playing an integral role. Even though it loses steam as it approaches the end, the final scenes of Salt and Fire show Herzog at his most playful and highlight those unique sensibilities that make him unlike any other filmmaker ever.
Salt and Fire
Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire features an incredibly compelling first half that is driven by a powerful performance by Michael Shannon before losing steam as it reaches its conclusion.