Lisandro Alonso specializes in films about solitary, violent men in frightening harmony with unforgiving nature, and Jauja is a continuation of that theme. But it's also leagues ahead of Los Muertos, Alonso's 2004 feature about a man's unclassifiable journey through an Argentinian jungle. This is closer in aim to a deconstructionist western, centered on the Danish Captain Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen), a soldier assigned to Argentina's Patagonia region. Alien to the land in which he lives and works, Dinesen creates the first dissonance between an Alonso protagonist and his environment, and the film's gorgeous landscapes are filtered through, and distorted by, Dinesen's friction with his surroundings. Framed in Academy ratio, the film makes nature unnatural, producing tableaux vivants of frontier archetypes such as native warriors, indentured laborers, runaway lovers. Isolated in the square frame, these figures occupy their own still lives, subtly illuminating colonial and cinematic history.
Dinesen rides past these sights when his daughter runs off with a soldier and he takes off in pursuit like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. The intensity of Mortensen's performance stands in sharp contrast to the non-professional actors Alonso previously cast as leads. Alonso's earlier protagonists spoke as little as possible and largely existed on screen as unknowable, primal mysteries, but Mortensen gets to shade in his part. Dinesen isn't exactly loquacious, but the actor stresses subtle aspects of the character, like the captain's unhealthy obsession with his daughter's virginal purity, or his casual disregard for the other people of the region, be they members of indigenous tribes or his own Spanish subordinates. And where the director previously cast real lumberjacks and seamen to operate in their usual milieu, thus blurring the line between the non-actors and their undefined characters, so, too, does Mortensen's star power inform Dinesen as much as the character's own diegetic past. Despite the lack of vanity in Mortensen's résumé, it's still surprising to see him in a mostly silent performance roaming the Argentinian wilderness, and it's equally fascinating to see how the pressures of this low-budget, minimally crewed shoot in remote locations gradually manifest in the actor's increasingly fraught performance.
Similar films use widescreen to highlight a terrifying existential void, but these cramped frames produce the nutty energy of cabin fever.
Alonso's features show an increasing grasp of formal control, but this film leaps ahead of its predecessors thanks to Timo Salminen's cinematography. Salminen mixes natural and artificial light in early shots to hyper-real effect; one shot in particular, of a soldier lying by a campfire, his red pants providing a shock of color amid night blue and tan cliffs, is what Delacroix paintings might have looked like if the Frenchman had lived on the frontier. Once Dinesen heads out on his manhunt, scenes recall the heightened reality of Frederic Remington, and real skies haven't looked so painted since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Eventually, the film replaces its warped naturalism for the fully abstract, prefiguring a final-act narrative upheaval that skips around time with the help of Proustian objects. It's a baffling narrative choice, one that Alonso admitted in several Q&As at this year's Toronto International Film Festival that even he doesn't fully understand.
Alonso's professed confusion is a puckish touch in keeping with the film's surprising strain of humor. A shot of hands creeping in from the edge of the frame to steal Dinesen's rifle, for instance, could pass for a live-action homage to a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon. Elsewhere, a shot gazing down at Dinesen as he struggles to climb a hill uses long lenses to flatten the background, giving the land an impression of relatively little slope. Then, in a throwaway visual gag, a subsequent master shot leaps out into an objective perspective that shows how steep the mountain really is. Revisionist westerns are usually dour affairs, foregrounding guilt over the imperial legacy of runaway expansionism, but Jauja is refreshingly absurdist, consistently including shots for seemingly no reason other than to be dry punchlines. Other films of this ilk use widescreen composition to highlight a terrifying existential void, but these cramped frames tend to produce the nutty energy of cabin fever.