Movie Review: Herzog stumbles with the opaque, dull and nearly pointless “Salt and Fire”

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The great Werner Herzog rarely takes on the effort of getting a fictional feature film made these days. The director of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and “Rescue Dawn” has found his meditative documentaries to be a better use of his time. “Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” “Encounters at the End of the World” and the recent “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” are more essays — on art, humanity, life at the extremes and modernity — than simple documentaries.

So when he does take on a feature and it fails, the disappointment is multiplied.

“Salt and Fire” is an odd environmental thriller, a perhaps-promising project that attracted Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal to Bolivia to see what this mad genius would make of it.

Not much, as it turns out.

A mismatched group of UN-sanctioned scientists — Veronica Ferres, Bernal and Volker Michalowski — arrive in an unnamed country, only to be greeted by armed paramilitaries who blindfold them and bundle them off to a remote hacienda. Nobody speaks Spanish, or even speaks with an accent. The guards are helmeted, with sunshield goggles, so they can’t tell who they are or what they want. 

“I take no pride in this,” their leader apologizes. He’s faintly contemptuous of their fact-finding “mission.”

“Do not try to come to the rescue of a tired world!”

It turns out, he is some sort of industrialist. And the scientists are there to learn about an ecological disaster of immense proportions — a vast salt flat, the “Diablo Blanco,” that was accidentally man-made and is swallowing up a huge swath of the country. That is, unless the volcano sitting beside it erupts and ends life on Earth first.

The head scientist, Laura (Ferres) and the “Consortium” industrialist Riley (Shannon) talk and debate and talk and talk some more. They ponder the imponderable in a sort of David Mamet learns German and has it translated by Werner Herzog dialogue — metallic, poetic, repetitive.

“There is no reality, only selective views of reality.” “The noblest place for a man to die is the place he winds up deadest.”

Riley has a sidekick, a fixer, “the brains” behind the operation. He’s played by real-life Arizona State scientist Lawrence Krauss, plainly no actor and a man not helped by the affectation of a wheelchair.

“I only use the wheelchair when I’m tired of life.”

If you’re going to look ridiculous, there’s no sense half-assing it. And I’m not just talking about Krauss. Herzog, who pointlessly strands his lady scientist in the middle of the salt with two blind native boys, shows flashes of the madness that so fascinated him in his earliest work — in front of and behind the camera.

Whatever he was getting at with “Salt and Fire” — perception twisting environmental parable is my best guess — the picture never coalesces into anything straightforward enough to get a handle on.

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Herzog, whose “Into the Inferno” documentary (now on Netflix) is all about volcanoes, may be saying something about nature’s capricious capacity for disaster dwarfing that of man, when it comes to climate change. If so, he’d have been better served sparing Shannon, Bernal and Ferres the effort and Professor Krauss the embarrassment and just made “Salt and Fire” a documentary.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Veronica Ferres, Michael Shannon, Gael Garcia Bernal, Lawrence Kraus

Credits: Written and directed by Werner Herzog, based on a Tom Bissell short story. An XLRator Media release.

Running time: 1:37

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