TIFF16: Salt and Fire

It’s a fool’s errand to predict what Werner Herzog will do in any given film, and yet, I still find myself particularly baffled by his latest fiction feature, Salt and Fire. The film recounts a clash of egos and ideologies between a UN scientist, Laura (Veronica Ferres), and a corporate tycoon, Matt Riley (Michael Shannon). After arriving in an unnamed South American country, Riley kidnaps Laura—who is supposed to investigate a giant salt flat created by his corporation—and slowly twists her to his will.

In one sense, Salt and Fire is a tale of Stockholm syndrome, where Laura slowly but surely comes to see the world as Riley does. But in another more meaningful sense, it’s a love story, where two observers of the Earth offer arguments on the environment, battle wits, and eventually unite as a mother and father of sorts who are capable of dealing with a massive ecological problem. Unfortunately, despite its thematic audacity, it’s not a good film in any meaningful sense.

In individual moments, it’s breathtaking. Shot on the Bolivian salt flats, Herzog revels in the sort of mythic landscape photography present in most of his documentaries. The near-constant presence of music is also helpful, giving the film an operatic sweep that bears more than a passing resemblance to the later films of Terrence Malick. Herzog knows how to instill awe. I just wish he were interested in a cohesive vision here: one that tells a more realized story, or, alternatively, one that transforms his odd tangents into true lyricism. I like classical narratives and I like lyrical art films, but Salt and Fire jumps back and forth between the two, as if attempting a cinematic form of hopscotch.

The film is simply bizarre and hilarious, although perhaps not intentionally. I appreciate the absurdity of Lawrence Krauss appearing as a wheelchair-bound henchman who can walk freely but sits in the chair because he’s bored with life. But the arrival of two blind children at the climax named after Incan kings is so opaque as to seem a parody of a Herzog film. I simply do not comprehend their purpose and cannot sympathize with the emotional breakthrough they stir in Laura and Matt.

Perhaps Salt and Fire is actually a cunning comedy, satirizing what I believe to be its more sincere efforts, but as of yet, I don’t see it. Someone, perhaps Herzog himself—my door is always open, Werner—will have to illuminate me.

4 out of 10

Salt and Fire (2016, USA/France/Germany/Mexico/Bolivia)

Written and directed by Werner Herzog; starring Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael García Bernal, Lawrence Krauss, Volker Michalowski.