Salt and Fire (2016)

  • Time: 98 min
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Cast: Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, Volker Michalowski


Salt and Fire is about a mysterious hostage-taking where the leader of a small scientific delegation is deliberately stranded with two blind boys in an area of gigantic salt flats. Shot in Bolivia, the film stars Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres and Gael García Bernal and was written and directed by Werner Herzog.

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  • “Lethargic, listless, torpid, moribund…” describes Gael García Bernal’s Professor Fabio Cavani of his wait at the airport’s immigration desk, yet he may as well be referring to Werner Herzog’s latest film, Salt and Fire, which Herzog adapted from the short story “Aral” by Tom Bissel. Frequently stultifying though often visually stunning, the film once again deals with Herzog’s fascination with the clash between nature and human society, though comes nowhere near the resonance and gonzo peculiarity of his most well-known works.

    Cavani, Professor Maier (Volker Zack Michalowsky) and team leader Professor Laura Somerfeld (Veronica Ferres) are en route to an unnamed country on behalf of the United Nations to investigate an ecological disaster in rapidly expanding salt flats have caused a volcano to rise to such an extent that it is experiencing round-the-clock tremors. If they cannot figure out a way to stop or slow down the expansion, then the world will either be destroyed by salt or fire or both.

    Before the trio can begin their investigation, however, they are abducted by a group of balaclava-clad armed men, who whisk them away to a small compound in the middle of nowhere. Cavani and Maier are immediately sidelined with the mother of all diarrhea, whilst Somerfeld has the dubious honour of meeting with the mastermind behind the abduction, one Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of a shadowy organisation known as The Consortium whose motivations are unclear but who certainly enjoys quoting Nostradamus, passages from Ecclesiastes, and making statements like, “Do me a favour and don’t try to come to the rescue of a tired world!”

    Once Riley gets his fill of one-sided conversations with Somerfeld, he drives her out to the salt flats, where he promptly abandons her to fend for herself with nothing but a few supplies and a pair of young blind boys to keep her company. This passage of the film is far more tolerable than what’s unfolded thus far for the simple reason that the landscape is utterly stunning. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s camera practically caresses the patterned expanse, at once seemingly so alien and yet very much of this earth, creating a dreamlike imagery that almost justifies Herzog’s folly.

    Almost. Unfortunately, the final denouement diminishes any goodwill Salt and Fire gained during this otherworldly stretch. Ferres makes for an earthy presence and Shannon is nothing less than watchable, but neither can salvage the film from being a somewhat pointless affair.

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