Making Searchers of Us All

Some movies, like 'Jauja,' invite us to go beyond narrative question and toward experience.
Making Searchers of Us All
Image: The Cinema Guild
Viggo Mortenson in 'Jauja'

Before the American Western, as a genre, went out of fashion—charged with being formally unhip and ideologically questionable—for nearly a century it found deep purchase in the psyche of American filmgoers for giving form to our wont to wander in search of identity, both personal and communal. There was transcendence in the Western, not in the least part for the way its typical narrative through line—a physical quest westward in which wagon trains left behind acres of dust and smoldering campfires—embodied a genuine (and often conflicting) spiritual need to discover self on the one hand and the home to which that self belongs on other.

There may be no better articulation of this than in the final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers, in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stands poised on the threshold of the settler’s home to which he has come to return his niece Debbie to safety. The epitome of John Ford’s “good-bad man,” Ethan must choose between the freedom of the rambling man on the range and the accountable life of the domesticated man in the home.

Is it surprising that there’s hardly a more devastating moment in cinema than when Wayne totters back out into the wild while on the soundtrack the Sons of the Pioneers sing “ride away”?

In his new dual language (Spanish/Danish) Jauja, pronounced “how-ha” in Spanish, director Lisandro Alonso riffs on the The Searchers conceit, but asks, “What if Ethan never finds Debbie?” Or, better yet, “What if Ethan abandons the search for Debbie entirely to wander the wilderness in search of himself?”

It’s the 1880s, and the searcher here is Captain Ginna Dinesen ...

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Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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