Salt and Fire is about something. More accurately, it is About Something, in that vague, omnipresent sense that seems to pervade writer/director Werner Herzog's newest film (the second in as many weeks through an odd coincidence). In fact, the filmmaker seems to be the only one in on whatever thematic point his movie is making by way of rambling, pseudo-philosophical monologues and exchanges, wayward plotting that drifts through its narrative with all the energy of readying to take a nap, and a set of characters who are insults to cardboard. The plot, such as it is, surrounds a corporate kidnapping whose motivation on the part of the kidnappers is surprisingly understandable and even sympathetic. This is a movie that doesn't have a grasp on how it wants to treat its characters.
For if we are to sympathize with Matt Riley's (Michael Shannon) plan to kidnap Laura Sommerfeld (Veronica Ferres), a professor traveling to Bolivia to study a manmade disaster known as the "Diablo Blanco" salt flat, that means our emotional investment in this plot must be minimal. The salt flat rests in the shadow of a dormant volcano that will not remain dormant for long. If it erupts, Riley hypothesizes that the world will be covered in salt and fire (yes, hence the title of the film) for the rest of eternity. Sommerfeld has arrived to write a report by gathering statistics and examining the surface of the salt falt and the base of the volcano in order to convince the world to do something about it. There is no doubt that a plot of this nature is a worthy thing to examine, perhaps in a movie with genuinely developed characters and a sense of urgency.
How this film builds to its point is by way of a rote, A-to-B-to-C structure of simply relaying the events that occur, paired with awkward dialogue that doesn't seem like it was written by an intellectual human being (let alone by Herzog, adapting a short story by Tom Bissell). When the characters aren't randomly quoting Nostradamus and the Bible, then going on long tangents about their quotes from Nostradamus and the Bible, they're addressing the central situation of kidnapping as if it is but a minor inconvenience and with too much formality to seem like plausible language. Any importance in the supporting characters is minimal: Sommerfeld's colleagues, Drs. Cavani and Meier (Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Zack Michalowski), disappear by the half-hour mark into a subplot involving diarrhea (no, seriously), and Riley's main henchman Krauss (Lawrence Krauss) exists only for the eccentric notion that a man would only use a wheelchair when he is "tired of life."
As the film enters its conclusion, it does a strange thing, though: It strands Sommerfeld on the salt flat with two blind boys (played by Danner Ignacio Marquez Arancibia and Gabriel Marquez Arancibia) and proceeds to accomplish precisely nothing. This is not exaggeration of any sort. The plot screeches to a halt for thirty minutes as Sommerfeld cares for the boys, plays a curious board game (whose point is utterly elusive, both as a game and as a plot device) with them, and tries to survive for a week on eight barrels of water and little food. Only until the plot kickstarts once again are we provided with (mostly useless) context and a bid, once again, to sympathize with a character the film also firmly establishes as a criminal. Salt and Fire is a tone-deaf mess, odd and bad in ways that are consistently baffling.
Veronica Ferres (Laura Sommerfeld), Michael Shannon (Matt Riley), Gael Garcia Bernal (Dr. Fabio Cavani), Volker Zack Michalowski (Dr. Arnold Meier), Lawrence Krauss (Krauss), Danner Ignacio Marquez Arancibia (Huascar), Gabriel Marquez Arancibia (Atahualpa)
Directed and written by Werner Herzog, based on the short story "Aral" by Tom Bissell.
No MPAA Rating.
Released in select cities on April 7, 2017.