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Arts and Entertainment

Viggo Mortensen Stars In The Mysterious, Modern-Day Western 'Jauja'

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Once a staple of Hollywood, the Western is a tough sell to the modern audiences. What wonder is there left to marvel at now that the frontier has been thoroughly conquered? Does the ugly legacy of colonialism still resonate? In the new film Jauja, director Lisandro Alonso uses the classic genre to process questions that seem well beyond the scope of human history and humanity itself. Set sometime in the late 19th century in the wilderness of Patagonia (which actually still seems untamed), Danish military officer Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) is encamped with an Argentine army unit as they are engaged in a genocidal war against the natives. Alonso shoots the film in the boxy Academy ratio and rounds out the corners of the frame to recall a vintage photograph, making the whole affair seem self-consciously historical. Jauja isn't about Argentina's bloody history, though, but instead Dinesen, the stranger in a strange land. He's able to get on well enough with his fellow conquerors of European descent (Mortensen is fluent in both Spanish and Danish), but we're left with a sense that he doesn't quite understand why he and his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) both happen to be there.

Dinesen is cast deeper into the unknown when Ingeborg runs off with a handsome conscript and he goes searching after her. Jauja veers into even stranger realms than what initially seemed like Cowboys and Indians; into an uncharted territory with a crazed, possibly-mythological bandit named Zuluaga. Gradually, Dinesen's journey becomes less about his search for his daughter and simply the struggle of a man traversing a forbidding landscape simply through sheer will. Mortensen climbs and stumbles across a rocky, alien terrain, muttering "What a shit country" as he loses his step. It's treacherous, but also utterly beautiful and evocative. Although in Lord Of The Rings he was able to command armies and unite kingdoms, here Mortensen is a solitary man in a seemingly endless struggle against a hostile ground indifferent to his plight.

Jauja can be frustrating at times, leading the viewer to wonder why exactly so much time is devoted to watching Viggo Mortensen ride his horse or walk from one side of the frame to the other. Alonso's sense of pacing is so deliberate it almost feels like a self-parody of art movies—there's multiple shots lasting over a minute where we watch Dinesen scale no more than 50 feet up a hill before before the next cut. These are not without purpose. With each sustained, observant shot we truly get the sense of Dinesen's minuscule existence within the larger scope of time and place.

An unexpected, perplexing conclusion—too marvelous and puzzling to spoil or adequately explain—upends the film and plunges it into darkness and out the other end into placid sunlight ("I love David Lynch," says the director). Dinesen eventually departs us for Jauja's last ten minutes for an unknown fate. Alonso seems to care not. His concerns are not with the ephemeral, but the infinite and mysterious.

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Related: Viggo Mortensen Tells Us Why He Hasn't Done Blockbusters Since 'Lord Of The Rings'

Jauja opens today at the Nuart in West Los Angeles. Viggo Mortensen will be holding Q&As after today and tomorrow's 7:30 screenings, and introducing the 9:50 screenings.

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