Vast, impenetrable reams of aphoristic waffle are spouted by the characters in “Salt and Fire,” but minutes from the end of Werner Herzog’s thoroughly peculiar new narrative outing, the protagonist finally, plainly speaks for the audience.
“Are you kidding me?” she yells — in bewildered response to the last of several random story swerves in the film, though it’s tempting to imagine the camera simply caught actress Veronica Ferres’s spontaneous reaction to the bonkers script. Either way, by this point, she’s only half as perplexed as most viewers will be by this awkwardly shoehorned fusion of ecological thriller, ideological romance and meditative landscape ode — only the last mode of which appears to have the veteran auteur’s full attention. It’s no surprise, given Herzog’s recent dedication to the documentary form, that Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni salt flats should emerge as the true star of “Salt and Fire,” despite the earnest efforts of Ferres and Michael Shannon.
As in 2009’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” the latter proves he has a measure of the gonzo intensity that once made Herzog and Klaus Kinski kindred spirits, though the late, tortured German thesp never had to wrestle with material quite this ragged. Immediately preceding Herzog’s inert, long-languishing Nicole Kidman vehicle “Queen of the Desert” in US theaters — despite quietly premiering a year later on the festival circuit — “Salt and Fire” likewise does little to suggest the helmer’s hiatus from narrative filmmaking between 2009 and 2015 was a restorative one. Even the virtues of both films are ones more satisfyingly expanded in his recent nonfiction work: a poetic engagement with the physical world, articulated in the director’s singularly eccentric rhetoric.
When Shannon’s corporate mystic figure goes off on a loopy codphilosophical rant (“Is it possible there’s something allpervading around us that your data can’t analyze, that only prophets and birds can express?”), it’s no slight to the actor to say such plum-purple nonsense would sound slightly more persuasive in Herzog’s characteristically halting Teutonic tones. Well before proceedings turn quite so florid, however, the first third of “Salt and Fire” unspools on surprisingly straightforward genre terms, setting viewers up for a mundanely efficient hostage drama — right down to the done-to-death ploy of opening mid-crisis before a mostly redundant “this is how we got here” flashback. Environmental scientist Prof Laura Somerfeld (Ferres) is called to Bolivia on a high-stakes UN research mission, concerning the ecological disaster of a parched lake swallowed by “El Diablo Blanco,” a rapidly expanding salt flat. Joining her are two male colleagues (Volker Zack Michalowski and a neurotically mugging Gael Garcia Bernal) so extraneous to proceedings that even the film tires of them halfway through, sidelining the men with a grisly case of diarrhea. Points for redressing decades of cinematic gender imbalance, then, if not for tidiness of storytelling.
By Guy Lodge