For the past three decades, Werner Herzog has embodied auteurist cinema, creating a distinctive body of work which plumbs the metaphysics of the modern world. Characteristic of his work is an intense curiosity, intelligence and a daring poetic sensibility. Unfortunately, these virtues which animated documentaries such as “Into The Abyss” and “Grizzly Man” become dead weight in his most recent film, “Salt and Fire.”
Based on a short story by Tom Bissell, the narrative Follows the kidnap of a U.N. Delegation sent to Bolivia in order to explore an ecological disaster known only as “Diablo Blanco”. The leader of the delegation, a professor named Laura (played by Veronica Ferres) is held captive in a private compound by Riley the CEO of “the Consortium” (played by Michael Shannon) which is the company responsible for the ecological disaster. As the narrative unfurls, however, the entire thread of the plot becomes aimlessly lost among Michael Shannon’s and Laura’s stilted philosophical ruminations.
The dialogue in this film is an absolute punishment to witness: cliched, stilted and awkwardly formal, the conversations between the two characters combined with mediocre acting and a complete lack of any on-screen chemistry make sitting through the entirety of this project absolutely unbearable. For example, at one point when Laura states she needs to study the ecological disaster with her science, to which the CEO yells (literally) that perhaps science does not have the answers, that there is a reality which graphs and big data cannot capture. How this applies to a man made ecological disaster is never explained, nor does it explain how a man who refuses to believe in data became the CEO of a biomedical company.
While both Michael Shannon and Veronica Ferres are gifted actors in their own right, both give uninspired performances.Veronica Ferres’ defiant professor role crumbles when the script moves towards interiority. When Riley asks about her daughter, Ferres’ overblown reaction comes across as laughable instead of dramatic. Michael Shannon’s portrayal of Riley is similarly overblown, but somehow far worse than Ferres. There seems to be no logical correlation between the facts of his character and the delivery of his ideas, which is compounded by the unconvincing delivery of every word he utters.
“Salt and Fire” feels thematically derivative from his recent projects “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” and the Netflix original “Into the Inferno,” The latter explores the evolution and future of the internet age, probing the profound effect on humanity that modern connectivity has had, while the former documents how different cultures have conceptualized their relationship with volcanoes, whether this be through mythology or art. Both of these themes appear throughout this movie, often for no reason other than to give Michael Shannon pseudo profound ideas.
As these punishingly awkward conversations proliferate, it becomes clear that Herzog is uninterested in the plot, and is aiming for some type of applied philosophy: characters are but mouthpieces for Herzog’s curiosity, ranging from reflections on the nature of science to illusion and reality. While these conversations do have merit in an abstract sense, the obtuse execution of these, as well as the complete lack of any motivation by the characters becomes truly insufferable. By the end, it becomes clear that neither characters have any genuine motivation nor do the conditions that surround them.
What this films makes up with, however is dynamic camerawork which brings the stunning beauty and strangeness of the Bolivian Salt flats front and center. Stretching into an almost infinite plain, the starkness of the of the white rock formations do provide a Herzog with an opportunity to meditate on the inherent strangeness of the natural world. However, this vanishes fairly quickly when Laura presses her ear to the ground and claims the salt is “almost a moving membrane.”
This is a terrible film. It is unrewarding, aimless, heavy handed and pretentious, and for a director as brilliant as Herzog disappointing. Perhaps more frustrating with a failure of this sort is that this is a conceptually fascinating film, and given a tighter script and better casting might have been among one of Herzog’s finest films. “Salt and Fire” is the most disappointing failure for a director: a missed opportunity.