Like noir, the western is a remarkably mutable form that accommodates a spectrum of different films. Jauja falls about halfway between The Searchers and El Topo, drawing western tropes out into the wilds of surrealism but (wisely) stopping short of any overt psychedelia.
The story concerns a Dane named Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen) who is posted up with a ragged cavalry division somewhere in the Pampas of Patagonia. It’s unclear exactly what he’s doing there or what the division’s objective is, but at the outset of the film, things are looking pretty fractured, and rumblings indicate we may be flirting with a Heart of Darkness situation.
Circumstances change when Gunnar’s young daughter runs away from the camp with a sweetheart and disappears, after which the rest of the film is dedicated to her father’s lonely quest to find her.
As he tracks her through changing landscapes, we’re treated to some truly lovely (and richly hued) cinematography at a meditative, hypnotic pace. The land, vast and empty, envelops him fully, and its physical beauty only seems to make the dreamy impenetrability all the more ominous. It’s a place that effortlessly resists mapping, and by journey’s end—if we can call it an end—we have fully retreated from it into a psychic space. Quite a cowboy movie.