Jauja‘s opening shot is of a father and daughter alone in a desolate and unfamiliar landscape discussing their eventual return home to their native Denmark. At its core this is a film about their relationship set within the context and iconography of the Western genre. But it is also a film which transcends the boundaries of the genre, which it only utilises as a framework for its narrative. Whilst Jauja has been frequently compared to John Ford’s The Searchers, this is a troublesome simplification and although this surface comparison may offer a short-hand frame of reference for the direction the narrative initially takes, Jauja ends up as a completely different film to the one it started as.
Viggo Mortensen plays Captain Dinesen, a Danish soldier assigned to an expedition in Argentina where he finds himself mostly frustrated and bored. Alongside him is his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) who takes far more interest in the beauty of the Argentinian landscape around her as well as its people, most obviously a young soldier who she later runs away with in the dead of night against her father’s wishes. Upon discovering her absence, Dinesen immediately reaches for his gun, apparently only seconds away from starting out on a ruthless hunt for his lost daughter. But suddenly, Dinesen catches himself in the midst of this violent panic and adjusts his behaviour. He puts down the gun, takes out his uniform, arranges it precisely along with his sword and other pieces of equipment and proceeds to dress himself as if it were any other day. At the end of this sequence, Dinesen sits on his bed and takes a deep, reflective breath. This is a man of civility, of honour and intelligence; but, as will be revealed, he is also incredibly naive about the task at hand. This sequence sets the tone for the film precisely; stripping away the animosity and blood-soaked characteristics of the typical Western (anti)hero to reveal above everything else: a loving father desperate for the return of his only daughter.
Equally conservative is the cinematic treatment of the landscape, which is framed, not as the panoramic vistas of the genre’s classic films but confined by the square Academy-ratio, which directs focus towards the characters and their presence within the environment rather than the environment itself. Shots are held for long periods of time and minutes pass in silence during sequences where one lone character is venturing through the landscape. Neither the environment, the character or the narrative are romanticised in any way. This isn’t melodrama but cold, hard reality and Dinesen is set on his task as the absurd Danish captain journeying through the Argentinian wilderness by himself.
There is a touch of Herzog’s Aguirre in Jauja‘s trajectory, as well as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both of which trace the psychological states of their lead protagonists as they journey progressively further into the depths of the wilderness. Contributing to this theme, Dinesesen hears near the film’s beginning of an Argentinian Colonel who has gone AWOL and has established himself as the leader of a group of natives in some sort of Kurtzian bid for power and glory. Already fearing this madman’s violent stronghold over the region, Dinesen’s worst fears come to fruition when it appears this Colonel has had a part to play in his daughter’s disappearance. As Dinesen continues on his path the almost mythic landscape of Argentina soon begins to exert its influence over the character’s state of mind, which in turn leads towards the film’s shockingly Lynchian denouement.
Jauja will certainly not be to everyone’s taste and many may find its style cold or detached and will be left with more questions than answers once the credits roll. But for those willing to venture down the rabbit hole of director Lisandro Alonso’s hypnotic take on the Western genre, Jauja offers a dreamlike fable about the faith individuals have in their loved ones to support and come through for them in times of crisis.