Viggo Mortensen must love to walk. He tramped across Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings, marched across post-apocalyptic America in The Road, and now he’s striding over Algeria in Loin des Hommes (also known as Far From Men), a ponderous adventure-drama that may also have doubled as a hill-walking holiday for the cast and crew. The sickeningly accomplished Mortensen, a Danish-American actor best known for his English-language roles, shows here that he can handle French, Spanish and Arabic dialogue, too. His character, Daru, works alone in a tiny schoolhouse in a barren mountain region of Algeria, where he teaches a gaggle of peasants’ sons and daughters. But it’s 1954, and Algerian rebels have begun targeting French civilians, so Daru’s days in the area are numbered. A local official then insists that he leave the school for a few days to take a villager on foot to the nearest town. The villager, Mohammed (Reda Kateb), killed his own cousin, so Daru has to deliver him to the French authorities, whether he wants to or not.
Adapted from Camus’ short story, The Guest, Lois des Hommes is essentially an old-fashioned Western about a man with a bloody past being dragged into a conflict he had tried to avoid. You could imagine Clint Eastwood playing the role – and Mortensen himself played a similar one in A History of Violence. It’s also a ‘prisoner and escort’ buddy movie. The gruff Daru and the meek Mohammed hardly speak to each other at first, but it’s only a matter of time until they start swapping anecdotes and learning to trust each other, just like every other prisoner and escort in cinema history. Before they get to that point, though, there’s walking to be done. Daru and Mohammed walk, and then they stop for food. They walk, and then they hide from Mohammed’s vengeful relatives. They walk, and then they bed down in an abandoned settlement. They walk, and then they’re captured by rebels. You can probably guess what happens after that.
All this taciturn trudging would be fine if the men’s trek were as awe-inspiring as it’s clearly intended to be, but it comes across as a slow, scenic stroll. This is partly due to the lack of tension. Mohamed doesn’t want to escape, and Daru doesn’t care if he does, so there is never any frisson between them. But a bigger issue is that the film just doesn’t look very epic. Even when the screen is filled with the rocky crags and plains of Morocco, where it was shot, the cinematography is as flat as a tourist’s video, and Mortensen, in his suspiciously clean new clothes, barely breaks a sweat. In one supposedly thrilling sequence, Daru slips on some loose stones, and slides down a mountainside, potentially to his doom. But instead of using some spectacular stunt work to convince us that he is in danger, the filmmakers resort to the TV-movie technique of wobbling the camera, and cutting quickly between a series of close-ups. Daru doesn’t appear to risk anything more severe than a twisted ankle.
Later, once he and Mohammed stop walking and start talking, Loin des Hommes finally gets underway. Taking the narrative well beyond the boundaries of Camus’ source material, the film’s writer-director, David Oelhoffen reveals a rich back story for Daru, and he comes up with a cleverly knotty reason for Mohammed’s arrest. The two men remain the passive nice guys they always were, but Oelhoffen draws out some of the ironies at play in Algeria’s fight for independence, and he makes one or two points that could apply to today’s trouble spots. By the end, Loins des Hommes has become a mildly rewarding tale of good men in a bad situation. But there really is lots and lots of walking first. And at the screening I attended, there was a fair amount of walking out, too.