Jauja isn’t for everyone. This is an art western that revels in cryptic, languid surrealism, giving short shrift to conventional narrative and characterization. In short, you’ve got to have an appetite for watching a forlorn man painstakingly stumble up a rocky hill, and then down the other side. Then up another hill. And back down again. A dog shows up. More clambering. That’s Jauja, folks
Wait! Come back! It’s actually really good! Despite director Lisandro Alonso’s disregard for propulsive storytelling and snappy dialogue, Jauja is a gripping, beautiful experience, complete with a magnetic lead performance by Viggo Mortenson.
Set in the late 19th century, Mortenson plays Gunnar Dinesen, a Danish captain dispatched to Patagonia. Leading a gaggle of dissolute soldiers, Dinesen and his men scratch out an uncertain existence on a sliver of land between sea and desert. It’s never entirely clear what their mission is, but distant rumblings of deserting captains, trouble with the natives and colonial contempt for the country add up to a simmering paranoia.
The one bright spot in Dineson’s life is his teenage daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger). Her mere presence is an anachronism, the primly dressed and neatly coiffed girl looking impossibly out of place in this wild world. As the only woman around, she quickly becomes a target for the horny soldiers as Dineson grows increasingly neurotic about her virginity. Things come to a head when Ingeborg and a young soldier escape the camp for the wilderness. Of course, Dineson pursues.
From this point, the film undergoes a gradual tonal and narrative collapse. As Dineson trudges across the barren landscape, all vestiges of civilization are gradually stripped from him, reducing him from military men to deluded madman and beyond. This is a powerhouse performance from Mortensen, as he infuses Dineson with complexity, personality, even a dab of mordant humor – an impressive feat given that the role is largely silent.
As he progresses through this limbo-like landscape we watch him gradually transforming, Mortenson’s weathered features becoming akin to the rocks surrounding him. As he emerges from within dark cracks, kneels to sip dripping streams or dozes underneath the stars, he melts into the environment, the boundaries of Dineson’s self slowly eroding into the Patagonian dirt.
And boy oh boy what dirt it is! Timo Salminen’s astonishing cinematography makes Patagonia look like the surface of another planet: a landscape of creeping algal blooms, shattered volcanic rock and gigantic boulders. Shot in Academy ratio, the careful compositions suggest Victorian photography, with man and environment in classical balance with each other. This makes for an incredibly mannered looking film, as characters constantly freeze in complex tableaux against the dramatic scenery as if posing for Caspar David Friedrich.
Every single shot in Jauja is impressive, though even here there’s standouts. An early shot of a soldier idly masturbating in a rock pool sets the tone for much of the film, tiptoeing the borderline between defiling/communing with nature. Once things get a bit more surreal, the appearance of a disturbingly motionless wolfhound sends shivers up the spine. Best of all is a shot of distant horrors. Crouched at the bottom of the frame, Dineson spies on two distant figures on the horizon. One is screaming in agony and the other appears to be wielding a large spear. Something very bad is happening, but it’s just far away enough that we’re forced to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Given Jauja‘s idiosyncrasy, it’s surprising that so many other cinematic reference points sprung to mind while watching it. The obvious touchpoint is Jodorowsky’s El Topo, both films existentialist Westerns featuring enigmatic men having surreal encounters. Jauja isn’t half as bonkers as El Topo, but their broad aesthetic and philosophic similarities are undeniable. Other cinematic siblings are Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, showing desperate men in desperate landscapes, Nicholas Roeg’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, in which nature devours those who overstep their boundaries, and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, where the flesh of the Western genre is stripped back to reveal the skeleton.
I’d hope that by now you’d be able to work out whether Jauja is your thing. It’s the kind of film that becomes more rewarding the more thought you put into decoding it, as the long, wide shots and vast silences give the audience time to work out what the hell is going on. Even then the film remains maddeningly opaque, especially taking into account a late coda that throws new light on everything prior.
Far from that being a failing, it’s this dense, cryptic poetry that makes Jauja such a compelling experience. At times it works almost as a cinematic Rorshach test, reflecting the viewers own subconscious back at them in funhouse mirror configurations. Jauja is sure to baffle many, but there’s no denying that it feels destined for cult success.