Much like the deaths of Bruce and Martha Wayne, Jesus’ crucifixion will forever be recreated throughout the history of cinema. It was only a few months ago that I wrote about Risen, Kevin Reynolds’ retelling of Jesus’ resurrection, and now here comes Rodrigo García’s Last Days In The Desert, ready to open those same stigmata wounds. But García smartly strays away from familiar passages from notable apostles. Instead, he captures the essence of Jesus through a fictitious lesson, which challenges God’s son before ever reaching the holy land. Rewriting the Bible – now you’re just asking to be smitten.
Ewan McGregor stars as the Christian savior, Jesus Christ aka Yeshua. As he traverses a vast desert landscape, traveling toward Jerusalem, he encounters a man (Ciarán Hinds), a wife (Ayelet Zurer), and their son (Tye Sheridan), living alone. The father wants his son to stay around and tend to his sick mother, but the boy wants to explore cities and seek his own vocational calling. Wanting to solve the family’s crisis, Jesus attempts to rectify the situation, despite the Devil’s (Ewan McGregor) continued disagreement. Jesus believes he can satisfy all parties, but the Devil laughs, and stays for the show. Even Yeshua needs to be tested, despite being the son of God.
Let me first confirm that you read the above casting credit right – Ewan McGregor indeed appears as Jesus AND the Devil. His role-switching duality may sound strange, but it strikes the film’s most intriguing dialogue and strongest chemistry. McGregor portrays a humble Jesus, as he struggles to inspire through words and messages, while his take on Lucifer finds charisma in doubt and curiosity. He’s a tamer devil, whose only differentiation from Jesus is a shiny earring (because earrings are evil, obviously). García’s antagonist stresses pure temptation over more horrific versions of pitchfork-waving Satans, which endears on a provocative, and understated level of religious villainy.
There’s a lengthy portion of Last Days In The Desert that seems to be setting us up for a droll, 90-some-odd minutes spent solely with McGregor’s inner stream of conscious. Thankfully, Tye Sheridan and company step in to bare some of the film’s weight, yet these actors can’t erase a dull, plodding introduction. García pans over California’s deserts to reveal these massive, sprawling rock canyons, but natural beauty can only get you so far, with the same going for McGregor’s prayers. Jesus calls out for his father, as the Devil mocks the neglect that follows, while we prepare for an uber-artsy vision quest that favors silence, solitude and personal struggles. Luckily, the tides change and Jesus finds himself among friends, granting audiences salvation from extended nothingness.
That said, García’s scenario is still a dry, dusty one. Jesus fights no plagues or larger events, and must simply guide a father/son relationship through verbal counseling. Neither man nor child will express their true feelings, as they continually treat Jesus as a patient middle-man. That’s not to say Sheridan’s sense of adventure and Hinds’ gaping guppy-mouth aren’t worthy of familial drama, but this hour-and-a-half psychiatry session – in the middle of a desolate desert – plays with as much enthusiasm as you’d expect. Nightmares and daydreams attempt to liven up a cut-and-dry case of miscommunication, yet this enduring journey will only appease the interests of dialogue-tolerant minds.
In the end, Last Days In The Desert feels like a wholly unnecessary aside during Jesus’ forty-days-and-forty-nights fasting episode, but deserves attention from patient, inquisitive viewers. Thank Ewan McGregor, as he pokes fun at himself in the most religiously ambiguous, sinfully tempting of ways. If you think your parents are bad listeners, just try having God as your father, who fiddles with inconsequential details like dew drops while you cry out for help. These are the trials and tribulations of Jesus Christ, who never let loneliness sway his desire to remain faithful.
Of course, we were dicks and totally ignored everything Jesus preached, but hey, maybe García’s film can breathe some belief back into this wayward, lost world.
Last Days In The Desert weaves a biblical tale with fictitious roots, and finds just enough success in McGregor's Jesus vs. Devil head-butting.