Director: Lisandro Alonso
Many will decidedly conclude that THE REVENANT is the aesthetic champion among 2015 westerns, but with SLOW WEST trailing close behind as a gorgeous saturated storybook western and half a dozen other films from said genre released in the past 12 months, it’s been quite the banner year for frontiersmen. But what will probably go down as the overlooked highlight of visual perfection is 2015’s JAUJA, an Argentinian, Danish, French, Mexican, American, Dutch, Brazilian co-production shot on gorgeous 35mm film in the academy ratio.
“I spy, with my little eye…”
Tracking a Danish father and daughter’s journey through Patagonia, JAUJA consumes itself with the mental endurance test of trying to find oneself in a landscape that seems so boundless in opportunity that it leaves its subjects aimless. Playing out like BADLANDS for the frontier, director Lisandro Alonso rivals Mallick in his perfectionist sense of composition, color placement and static frames, using his 4:3 aspect ratio as a means to showcase Viggo Mortenssen’s lack of preparation to survive in this open terrain, best displayed in a shot where Mortenssen uses a spyglass to look frame left but the absence of a widescreen format causes the beautiful prairies to be rendered dauntingly symmetrical.
Unfortunately for Alonso’s film, the narrative loses its footing near the halfway point. Although its snail’s pace successfully showcases the broad scope of the frontier and what one’s ancestors must have gone through to survive, it plays its cards too slowly, letting its dramatic urgency fall rather flat. This is also where BADLANDS works significantly better than JAUJA, allowing its protagonists to share the varying spatial elements for multiple sequences, but always coming to the same, fatal conclusion at every pit stop. Mortenssen, left to his own devices for much of the film, does what he can with the material but doesn’t have enough to play with to deliver anything poignant, and thus is reduced to a moving figure amidst beautiful compositions after the film’s tense, absolutely stunning first 30 minutes.
NOT shot on a stage, if you can believe it
Visually sublime from start to finish, JAUJA is a 2015 release that captures a picturesque beauty only rivaled by Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s THE ASSASSIN. If its narrative were as competent as its composition, JAUJA would be an instant modern classic. Additionally, thanks to a fantastic epilogue segment that neatly ties in the fate of a lead character with their descendants, JAUJA makes some beautifully poetic statements about life and ancestry; that everyone is destined to be forgotten about.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend