Daughter wanders off into the desert. Father embarks on an impossible journey to find her. That’s all there is to Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, and that’s plenty, because there’s so much more communicated in the film than incident. Alonso does spring one surprise twist, but the film’s effect is experiential and cumulative—the audience trudges along on this journey too, and the footfalls get heavier as it goes along. Though it’s actually possible to fall asleep during Jauja—there’s really no relief to the futility of the father’s mission—Alonso structures the film like a dream that travels deeper into the subconscious, as reality breaks imperceptibly, and the absurd and totemic start to assert themselves. Locking into the film’s rhythms requires patience and an abandonment of preconceptions, but it’s nonetheless Alonso’s most accessible work to date, buoyed by spare but lush photography and Viggo Mortensen’s magnetic presence in the lead role. It takes a special kind of charisma to bring viewers along on a journey to nowhere.
From Los Muertos to Liverpool, the arduous travels of a lonely man have been a common hook in Alonso’s films, but the main difference here is, there’s no set destination. Though he doesn’t establish a time or a locale explicitly, Jauja takes place in late-19th-century Patagonia, where a Danish engineer named Gunnar Dinesen (Mortensen) is surveying land that will soon be seized by European settlers. There are glimpses of the indigenous people—called “coconut-heads” by the conquerors—chiseling away at the landscape, presumably making way for civilization, but the film quickly narrows in scope. Gunnar’s 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Malling Agger), looking every bit the desert flower with her fair features and formal blue dress, attracts the attention of two men: an unctuous old lieutenant who’s introduced furtively pleasuring himself in a pool of water, and a younger rank-and-file soldier who’s more to Ingeborg’s liking. When Ingeborg disappears inland, Gunnar follows, but immediately veers off onto a different path.
Jauja could be called an “existential journey,” which is a generous term to describe a spiral down into the howling void. Beyond Gunnar’s desperate motivation to find his daughter, Alonso doesn’t reveal anything about his inner life; Mortensen is used almost like another feature of the sprawling, craggy landscape, and his physical exertion becomes more important than his psychological makeup. Jauja’s external elements are the most meaningful, particularly the observation that the savagery of this untamed territory comes not from the natives, but from the settlers, including a renegade soldier who leaves a bloody mess in his wake. At its most powerful, Jauja suggests the surreal Western violence of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in the way Alonso gradually folds the action into a waking nightmare. Gunnar goes looking for Ingeborg, but the trail leads instead into the heart of colonial darkness, which is where Alonso really wants to take us. There’s some relief in the heavily symbolic, what-the-fuck ending, which wakes the film with a start. But Jauja’s great achievement is its steady, hypnotic pull into the deep.