Werner Herzog’s fiction filmmaking in the 21st century has struggled to live up to his quest for the “ecstatic truth,” producing a spate of strange, out-of-step experiments that never cohere like his documentaries. Initially, Salt and Fire, about the abduction of UN-appointed ecologists by the company responsible for the man-made disaster they’re sent to probe, is every bit as enervating as some of Herzog’s recent fiction. Characters are established via blunt, awkwardly extraneous exposition, and everyone speaks lines with obvious discomfort, as if the actors had been handed the script just before the camera rolled, with no time to internalize the material’s meaning. Some of the dialogue suggests that Herzog himself has grown accustomed to being a meme, as when two of the captured scientists eat bad food and develop diarrhea. Or, as Gael García Bernal’s Dr. Fabio Cavani puts it: “There’s hordes of protozoans swirling in my digestive tract!”
The majority of the film transpires as an extended, odd dialogue between lead scientist Laura Somerfeld (Veronica Ferres) and Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of the company whose chemical waste has created an expanding salt flat that threatens to ruin all of the story’s undisclosed South American country where the company operates. Curiously, Riley kidnaps the scientists not to cover up his activities, repeatedly insisting he intends to take full responsibility for his company’s actions, but that he wants to force them to abandon “data and statistics.” Instead of collecting figures on machines, Matt wants them to actually experience, to feel on a personal level the horror of what he’s wrought, going so far as to dump Laura in the middle of the seemingly endless salt plain with two indigenous boys blinded by exposure to the chemical waste and leave them to survive.
Here, the film settles into the strange pulses of mystery that characterizes the director’s early, engrossing fiction. No one else has the same ability to make the alienating so thoroughly hypnotic, and gradually, Herzog manages to tie even the most distracted asides into the whole. Take, for example, an extended talk on anamorphic art, with particular focus on Emmanuel Maignan’s Saint Francis of Paola, which hides a small image within the larger mural of Saint Francis performing the miracle of crossing the Strait of Messina on his actual cloak. Later, this painting comes to mind when a shot looking out of a windshield as a jeep coasts over the salt flat gives the impression of the vehicle driving on water. This is the first narrative film Herzog has made since Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to show that he still has stories of his own to tell, and the final act is one of the strongest sustained sequences of cinema he’s crafted in some time.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.