Sundance 2015 Review: Last Days in the Desert

After some great highs (Tangerine, Strangerland, I'll See You in My Dreams), my Sundance 2015 journey went out with a whimper thanks to the devastatingly mediocre Last Days in the Desert.

Ewan McGregor stars as Jesus in an imagined take on his forty days of fasting and praying in the desert. There he takes up residence with a broken family comprised of a poorly mother (Ayelet Zurer), a struggling father (Ciaran Hinds) and a son (Tye Sheridan) eager to move on to bigger things.

In Treatment's Rodrigo Garcia writes and directs this project which ultimately feels too scared of offending a Christian audience to do or say anything remotely important whatsoever. This simply boils down to a pensive, navel-gazing tale of Jesus milling around the desert, lethargically drifting alongside a struggling family. Fortunately Garcia makes the most of his supporting players -and there is some vaguely engaging drama in the Father-Son dynamic established by Hinds and Sheridan which tackles the dilemma whether a son should stay and support his family or follow his own path. There isn't much space for parallels here with very little time being devoted to the film's core Father-Son relationship of Jesus and God.

With regards to narrative, Last Days in the Desert generally feels too restrained and delicate. Jesus's temptations from the Devil (also played by McGregor - a move that never really works) feel underutilised and overtly subtle lacking the dramatic impact that they should have - only further emphasising the slow pace. Pulses may quicken in response to the film's strongest dramatic moment which sees the feuding father and son argue about who eases the other down a canyon only supported by a thin rope to obtain some rock. What follows are some well-handled emotionally raw moments expertly performed by the film's strong cast.

McGregor's performance feels almost reflective - underplaying both Jesus and the Devil. As Jesus he brings a certain warmth and kindness to the role, whilst his version of the Devil as a naughty schoolboy never sits right - despite blatantly capturing the potential dichotomy in the Jesus-Devil relationship. The film's most impressive dramatic player, however, is Ciaran Hinds who brings a steely authority to the fold as the familial patriarch eagerly trying to connect with his distant son.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman) crafts an immersive visual landscape which adds a timeless character to the proceedings. Emphasising the enigmatic and mythical power of the vast sand dunes and rocky canyons, Lubezki's visual character is one of the few bold and affecting facets of Garcia's film. Chuck in an out of place fart gag (really) and some Ewan McJesus hair flicks, and you have Last Days in the Desert.

Last Days in the Desert is a draining slog that will have you feeling like you have been fasting for forty days. Moments of impressive acting and stellar cinematography do their best to engage us, but Garcia's film is so pensive and lethargic it is a case of too little, too late.

Tye Sheridan 5165595377541789237
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