The western genre is given the arthouse treatment with Jauja, an Argentinian and Danish co-production starring the usually-reliable Viggo Mortensen and though it looks promising, this is not one to remember too fondly.
Set in the late 1800s, Mortensen plays the role of Gunnar Dinesen, who is travelling with his daughter from Denmark to take work with members of an army based in the Argentina.
During the journey around the Argentinian desert, she runs off and becomes lovers with one of their companions and Gunnar, unaware of her motives, sets off on a trail to find her.
As the search progresses, it becomes more or less a case of ultimately looking for himself. Unexpected surrealism features include a brief gunfight, the encountering of a dog (one of the themes revolves around dogs) and a meeting with a lady in a cave as the journey takes its toll on the increasingly fatigued and perplexed Gunner.
All of this is juxtaposed with director Lisandro Alonso’s penchant for emphasis on the often beautiful but mysterious landscape of Argentina desert.
What looks like a fascinating film to view instead turns into one of confusion and bewilderment rather than thorough entertainment and intrigue. The pace of the film is slow, in fact, it is very slow. Not a problem whatsoever as slow pace is good but only if there is a degree of substance with which a film can fall on.
The motives for the filmmakers are evident and understandable that they are trying to make a western without falling into standard convention, but the substance is lacking sharply.
The film is not a western as in the same vein as the famous westerns of John Ford and Sergio Leone.
It feels more like what would happen if Joanna Hogg decided to make one.
Rather than focusing on actions, it paints itself unfavourably with its choice of words, an ideology which would put people who are not familiar with the arthouse scene off within the first half hour.
Even the ‘twist ending’, though plausible for opening different interpretations and giving a new sense of intrigue, might have some questioning the validity of what most of the film was all about.
The notion of conversations which start off interesting but eventually move to something much less is too frequent. There are some scenes where the sights do the talking and even then, it is better to watch with silence rather than listening to supporting characters drone about something that is hardly engaging.
The sights make up for part of the story and a simple but effective scene in which a worn-out Gunner, after encountering the lady in the cave, drinks water from a spring overlooking a lake is one that represents visual beauty.
Watching Mortensen play the determined type which he has personified so cleverly in works like The Road and The Two Faces of January is an interesting sight. He gives reason to the character and provides an intrigue as to how far this character will go. He often stops the film from disappearing entirely by giving a portrayal of a man in a struggling fight who tells us giving up is not feasible and makes us want to see what, if anything, can be achieved.
Jauja does benefit often from modest intrigue, visuals and Mortensen’s performance but its overall result is one that could have been done differently for the best if substance was placed higher than style.