Chatty Kidnappers Wax Philosophical in Werner Herzog’s Puffed-Up but Still Engaging “Salt and Fire”


Early in Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire, Laura (Veronica Ferres), a scientist kidnapped by mercenaries in South America, is warned by a fellow prisoner to keep their captors talking if she wants to survive. But a whole squad of hostage negotiators probably couldn’t have shut them up.

The head of a UN scientific delegation, she’s in Bolivia to investigate an ecological crisis; her kidnappers work for the consortium that caused it. For several days, Riley, played by intensity conduit Michael Shannon, subjects her to college-freshman philosophical meanderings; she also endures the film’s most irritating character — a Great Gazoo–like flunky played, for some reason, by astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss. It’s awful. He recites his lines phonetically, chopping at the air with his hands and trying not to look at the camera, like a stiff car dealer in a cheap local commercial.

But look — despite the bad acting, self-importance and general Herzogian ridiculousness, the director actually has a deep sense of beauty and a genuine talent for communicating humanity’s scale against immense natural forces and the absolute howling vastness of time. Riley strands Laura on the Bolivian salt flats with two young blind boys and some camping supplies, not far from the fastest-growing volcano in the world.

The Uturuncu supervolcano last exploded 790,000 years ago. Such is the timescale with which Herzog swings the enormous club of the film’s theme, a mass hurtling toward you very slowly. While you’re waiting for impact, there are some lovely moments: blind boys doing tricks with magnets; the stars; the stark, gorgeous expanse of the silent flats.

Salt and Fire

Directed by Werner Herzog

XLrator MediaOpens April 7

Available on demand