Imagine watching a pan-and-scan version of John Ford’s wide-screen masterpiece The Searchers on a smart phone. Even though the film is a classic, it would be a frustrating way to watch it. Yet, Lisandro Alonso intentionally does something similar. Probably the best thing going for his latest film is the stunning Patagonian backdrop, but he filmed the picture in the videographic 4:3 TV-like aspect ratio. Audiences should be warned, Alonso’s experimental aesthetic will always trumps their viewing experience in Jauja (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.
Captain Gunnar Dinesen is a Danish land surveyor serving during the so-called late 1800s “Conquest of the Desert” and therefore culpable for genocide in the film’s eyes. The only thing that interests him in Argentina is his daughter Ingeborg, for whom he seems to have an unhealthy attachment. Perhaps out of spite, she runs off with a rakish young military officer, so her father sets off in hot pursuit. He will follow and follow and follow, as the film slowly descends into a tiresome Beckett-like exercise in absurdism. However, in the final minutes, it throws a pointless surreal reality twister at us that is probably supposed to be Borgesian, but really just invalidates any lingering investment we might still have in the film.
Frankly, Jauja is the sort of film that mostly relies on intimidation to get by. Far too many critics are afraid to call out films that are high in pretension and low in substance for fear they will be dismissed as knuckle-dragging philistines or uneducated rubes. Take it from someone well versed in poststructuralist critical theory and reasonably conversant in the history of experimental cinema—damn little happens in Jauja.
Still, it is hard to believe Viggo Mortensen is the star of both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and this film. As Dinesen, he is credibly intense in a tunnel vision sort of way, but he is mostly just out there on his own. Someone ought to toss him Tom Hanks’ volleyball from Castaway.