Tatooine it isn’t, but Ewan McGregor is still trying to save a boy in the desert.
Forget Force ghosts and hearing dead Jedi, in the Rodrigo García written and directed Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor has full on conversations with himself. Everyone’s favorite young Obi-Wan Kenobi, McGregor plays dual (and dueling) roles that sometimes require him to be on screen with himself in the new movie. Specifically, he’s Jesus (or Yeshua) and the Devil.
Although based on a Biblical figure and a moment in said figure’s life—namely Jesus’s 40 days in the desert—what happens in the film (Jesus spending some time with a family) doesn’t appear in the Bible. This not-Biblical family is played by Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan, and Ayelet Zurer and are referred to as The Father, The Boy, and The Mother, respectively. Jesus spends several days with the family, noting their dynamic and wondering if he can help them. Their issue, which is one of the film’s main drawbacks, is that The Boy would like to go off to Jerusalem while The Father would rather he stay in the desert with the family.
As interesting as the concept of the film may be, this particular knot given to Jesus by García is supremely uninteresting mainly due to its genericness. It is, purposefully one assumes, a problem that is meant to be relatable to everyone watching—the child who wishes to go off to the city and find his way in life rather than staying in the country to be with his family. Even more relatable/generic—the family’s communication skills aren’t terribly good with The Mother, who is sick, tending to be the conduit for information passing between The Boy and The Father as the latter two do not talk. It isn’t that they don’t love each other—The Father very much loves his son, going so far as to build his son a house so that The Boy will stay (the family currently just has a small tent)—they just don’t see eye-to-eye on what the future should hold for The Boy.
That is it. Few other details are given save that neither The Father nor The Mother has spent their entire lives in the desert. The audience watches Jesus as Jesus watches the dynamic and the Devil makes a bet with Jesus that there is no way for Jesus to find a solution to the family’s problem that will make all three members happy. To try to alleviate the problem, Jesus offers the bland advice that The Father try to talk to his son.
Truly at issue is the lack of depth between the father and son. Rather than making this dynamic feel relatable, it is more a head fake at it. Except, it isn’t a head fake, it just lacks depth. The movie also offers two postscripts which attempt to add more to the film… except they’re both terribly out of place.
Some other elements of the movie make little sense. For instance, when Jesus first meets The Boy, Jesus offers to work in exchange for water. Rather than waiting for The Father to return to make any sort of decision about this offer, Jesus gets his water and leaves.
The various disappointments in the story are made worse by the fact that McGregor is so good in both roles. The best moments in Last Days in the Desert are the conversations between Jesus and the Devil, but they are too few, too short, and too far between.
Unquestionably there is a long and potentially deep theological discussion to be had about whether the Devil’s taunting of Jesus’s relationship with his father is in any way reflected in the relationship between The Father and The Boy. Though none of it is in the film. Those lines don’t necessarily have to be drawn, but in a movie which offers so little to the audience in terms of story or plot or character development or anything else it would be nice to have the movie provide at least this.
Outside of McGregor’s performances the only thing the movie has going for it are the vistas it provides. Multiple Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki is the director of photography and makes the Southern California desert in which the movie was shot both look absolutely stunning and like a nearly barren wasteland.
While it is beautiful to look at, the barrenness of it all, the family’s seeming lack of a true home, means of support, and anything else make the story feel that much more hollow. If The Mother is sick, why do they not go to Jerusalem (which seems nearby) to try to find help? If they have nothing there (and The Father wasn’t raised there nor, seemingly, was the mother), why is it so important to The Father that they stay? Last Days in the Desert has no answer except that without The Father wanting to stay there is no film.