By Christopher Renton
Unsurprisingly, the act of writing a script has always fascinated screenwriters. We could chalk it up to solipsism and ignore these self-indulgences, but some great films have been made about the search for cinematic inspiration–Sullivan’s Travels and Barton Fink to name just two.
Salt, directed by Argentinian Diego Rougier, is the story of aspiring writer Sergio (Fele Martinez) whose obsession with the spaghetti western has led him to compose an entirely derivative script that no one, even his cat Clint, seems to care for. Though his half-baked revenge plot is met with derision at every turn he refuses to be deterred. In an effort to reinvigorate his flagging imagination he departs for Chile’s Atacama desert. Upon arrival in a small village he is mistaken for a previous resident named Diego, and after initially protesting, consents to the assumed identity. Unfortunately for Sergio, Diego disappeared without the consent of the local druglord, Victor (Sergio Hernandez) who has a score to settle. Unable to convince the kingpin and his minions that he is, in fact, a screenwriter named Sergio, our protagonist suffers through kidnap, gruesome torture, and two days in the driest desert in the world.
It is through these trials and the assistance of the cantankerous desert hermit Vizcacha (Patricio Contreras) that Sergio discovers both his own capacity for vengeance and the story that was eluding him.
With recent additions to the canon like The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, The Proposition and 3 Burials of Melquiades Estrada the western is certainly not dead. Those films succeeded, in part, by following in the footsteps of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and played it straight. There are still stories to be told using the genre’s admittedly limiting conventions. And unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, who seems more capable than anyone of locking tongue firmly to cheek, playing with those conventions is not recommended. Diego Rougier’s career as a director has been spent predominantly in television, a fact that helps explain the ad/commercial quality of many of his visuals. Praise should be given to director of photography David Bravo for the beauty of his framing and exposure, but the shot choices felt stale at times–usually the product of an unimaginative director rather than an unskilled cinematographer. Rougier makes the decision early on to maintain the conceit that Sergio is using these horrible circumstances to reshape his script. The old man Vizcacha makes more than one attempt to disabuse him of the notion that life is anything like the movies, instead exhorting him to do as the real Diego would have done: seek revenge.
This effort to simultaneously sustain two plots (the conventional western and the writer’s plight) proves too much for Rougier and the literal overlaying (trite dissolves of script over image) only serves to keep the viewer uninvested. Had Rougier trusted his writing, which is wonderfully deadpan at times, he may have been able to allow one to more elegantly evolve into the other a la Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard. Instead, we watch fantastic performances and stunning photography eroded by the efforts of the writer/director. By their very nature, homage pictures should not strive to reinvent, and had Rougier kept this in mind he may have produced a more complete effort. Even the most graphic sequences of Salt lack the necessary punch that made modern westerns like Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia feel so immediate. Lacking Tarantino’s self-referential confidence and Peckinpah’s talent for consistent tone, Rougier’s film is a lovely failure of a western.
It’s really too bad, because it had the makings of something great.