If you're setting off on a day-long walk through the Atlas Mountains, who better than Viggo Mortensen to act as your guide? That certainly proves true in Far From Men, first in a story that sees an accused murderer trek towards an execution, and then in a film that goes on an existential wander towards the true meaning of courage and honour. With plenty of empathy lurking beneath his penetrating gaze and no-nonsense attitude, Mortensen is the ideal candidate for both journeys.
His rural schoolteacher, Daru, displays the kind of patience that clearly stems from a complex past — and the type of fortitude that will serve him well for any future troubles. At the beginning of the Algerian struggle for independence from the French in 1954, he finds the latter when a lawman deposits Mohammed (Reda Kateb) into his care, asking Daru to escort him to court to face the consequences of his actions. First, Daru refuses, not wanting to be complicit in the fate everyone knows awaits. When Mohammed won't leave on his own, he reluctantly agrees to the deed, leading his charge over rocky terrain and through opposing troupes of fighters.
Based on Albert Camus' The Guest, Far From Men might turn a short story into a stately adventure of sorts, assembling an episodic series of encounters as it does; however this always thoughtful, often tense film never shies away from the complicated emotions at the heart of what becomes a North Africa-set western. Indeed, it's in expressing the stoic sympathy of the feature that Mortensen demonstrates his worth, proving perfectly suited to playing a tough guy with a softer centre. Of all the roles the actor has taken since TheLord of the Rings trilogy in an attempt to steer clear of mainstream movies, this might just be his most subtle and stirring — and his finest.
Making only his second feature, writer/director David Oelhoffen doesn't just rely upon his star to sell his feature, as great a feat of casting as the filmmaker has pulled off. The slow-building interplay between Mortensen and the equally excellent Kateb is never less than captivating, as is the camaraderie these two strangers eventually cultivate. But the visuals that surround them are even more so. Lingering looks at furrowed faces and steely stares abound, as do long shots of the stark, dusty, scrubby plains. Each provides their own style of landscape — as marked by their own worries — that the eyes of the audience feel compelled to explore.
Oelhoffen matches such striking images with a similarly sparse yet rousing score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, ensuring Far From Men haunts in its soundscape as much as it does in its performances and cinematography. As a result, when it comes to intelligent updates of the western that contemplate the stark realities of conflict in intimate detail, this delivers the full package — along with the best actor to lead you through it.