Those wondering where the heck Viggo Mortensen has been for the last few years can relax. He’s still out there making movies, just not anything you’re likely to find at a multiplex. Mortensen shows his multilingual skills in David Oelhoffen’s Far from Men, a compelling but slow-moving adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author Albert Camus’ short story, “The Guest”. Set during the Algerian War for Independence in 1954, the film explores the unexpected friendship between an Algerian schoolteacher and an Arabic convict, but the real language is the commonality between men whose lives have been ripped apart by conflict.
Mortensen plays Daru, a teacher whose school is so remote it must have been deliberate. Daru is looking for a place away from the outside world, where the native Algerians are at war fighting against colonial rule. A war veteran with no desire to be part of the anymore violence, Daru nonetheless sees the conflict literally arrive at his doorstep. A local officer shows up and commands Daru to escort Mohamed (Reda Kateb), a man charged with murdering his cousin, to a nearby city where he’ll likely face execution. Daru wants no part of it, but out of some sense of ethical duty, reluctantly agrees.
While Oelhoffen is clearly interested in exploring the dynamics of the Algerian War, the film works best when embracing the style of classic American Westerns. The journey Daru and Mohamed undertake has gunfights, standoffs, moral dilemmas, and an entire mountain’s worth of stoic heroism. Daru is a man ruled by his straight-arrow moral compass, which more often than not gets in the way of his task. Their captor/prisoner relation between them begins to fade during their mountainous journey, avoiding search parties and encountering soldiers on both sides of the war. The path their friendship takes is a familiar one, and the film takes time to comment on the price of war and whether things such as loyalty and morality can exist in the midst of endless bloodshed.
Attempting to expand Camus’ rather lean short proves to be a hurdle Oelhoffen can’t completely overcome. The characterizations of both men are lacking, which is unfortunate given they are really the only two people we follow for any length of time. While Mohamed is a sympathetic figure, Oelhoffen goes to greater lengths than Camus to prove how good of a man he truly is. Both men are shown to be fundamentally decent, which sucks away any tension between them. That the film is plodding and inherently episodic, moving from one dangerous encounter to the next without much distinction, Far from Home will be a tough experience for those who aren’t interested in the Algerian conflict. Mortensen, speaking fluent French and Arabic, brings his usual rugged soulfulness. Kateb, who some will remember from A Prophet and Zero Dark Thirty, also delivers a quietly sensitive performance. Most surprising is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ forgettable score, given their terrific work on Westerns such as The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James.
Far from Men is ultimately a film that will appeal to only a select few, but those few will probably love it. While it brings a Euro sensibility to many Western tropes, the film isn’t exciting enough or deep enough to fully satisfy fans of either.