Director: Lisandro Alonso
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Viilbjørk Malling Agger, Diego Roman, Ghita Nørby
Running time: 108 min
Lisandro Alonso’s trippy existential Western Jauja sees Danish engineer Gunnar (Mortensen) and his daughter Ingeborg (Agger) living on a military camp somewhere on the Patagonian coast in the late 19th Century. After she elopes in the middle of the night with a young solder named Cortez, Gunnar sets off to find her in the vast wilderness of the desert with only his horse and decreasing sanity for company.
With nods to Ford’s The Searchers and Reichardt’s more recent Meek’s Cutoff, Jauja’s wilderness is a punishing environment. There is little to no life here save the sparse, dry greenery and the occasional screams of men which puncture the silence, the poor souls fallen victim to a rogue soldier named Zuluaga. It is a static place, the camera never moving , the desert transcending space and time as Gunnar steadily traverses towards an unknown destination.
This is a familiar scenario for anyone who has seen the likes of Jodorowsky’s El Topo or the films of Herzog; the (very 70s) opening credits tell us that Jauja is a place mythologised as a land of plenty, not unlike Aguirre: Wrath of God‘s El Dorado. Recalling their aesthetic, the whole thing is also staggeringly gorgeous. The sapphire blue of Ingeborg’s dress matches perfectly with the vast expanse of sky, the parched desert a hue of dirty yellow, all filmed with a softness that lends it an unworldly, dream-like quality. Like the aforementioned Meek’s Cutoff, Finnish cinematographer Timo Salminen recalls the early Westerns by filming everything in 4:3, with each frame painstakingly crafted to create a series of gorgeous painterly landscapes.
Mortensen, who is also executive producer and creator of the original score alongside guitarist Buckethead, is typically excellent, his restrained performance complementing Jauja‘s unshowy nature perfectly. It’s a shame that their haunting score doesn’t feature much as it is also beautifully understated, the silence and deliberately slow pacing at times becoming overbearing. With each over-long take it begins to feel irksomely self-indulgent rather than a providing space for reflection. It is this obtuseness that holds it back from greatness, which is unfortunate as Alonso could have created a true masterpiece. A beautiful, puzzling and frustrating piece of work; there is still a lot to love here if you have the patience.