Combustible Celluloid
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With: Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael García Bernal, Volker Michalowski, Lawrence Krauss, Danner Ignacio Márquez Arancibia, Gabriel Márquez Arancibia
Written by: Werner Herzog, based on a story by Tom Bissell
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 98
Date: 04/07/2017

Salt and Fire (2017)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Flat Lines

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Usually a director of fascinating films and documentaries about humans clashing with their environments, director Werner Herzog delivers a weird misfire with this puzzling, uncentered message drama.

In Salt and Fire, Professor Laura Somerfeld (Veronica Ferres), accompanied by two scientists (Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Michalowski), have been dispatched to an unnamed South American country to investigate a potentially deadly environmental phenomenon. At the airport, they are met by mysterious men and subsequently kidnapped.

One of the kidnappers reveals himself to be Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of a company that likely caused the problem: an ever-expanding salt flat that has taken the place of a water source. Riley drives Laura out on the flats, reaching an island in the middle of a vast sea of white salt, and, unexpectedly, leaves her there. Even more unexpectedly, two blind boys have also been left behind. There is food and water and shelter, but how long can they survive, and what is Riley's ultimate plan?

Clearly, Salt and Fire is meant as a kind of parable, with its story meant to represent certain themes, but those themes end up overpowering any kind of emotion or character, and the act of watching the movie becomes more like listening to an awkward sermon, delivered in odd, stiff dialogue (with no contractions).

Perhaps if the movie had been set in some kind of alternate or sci-fi universe, it might have helped the material go down more easily. And it does contain some striking imagery. But, as it is, set in reality, the extremely peculiar off-putting behaviors and actions — such as a man riding in a wheelchair only when he feels like it — clash.

It's almost unintentionally surreal. Certainly any movie that tries to raise awareness about the environment and the urgent need to take care of it gets a certain amount of credit, and Herzog's heart is in the right place, even if his head isn't.

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