In Depp’s new film, in­quisi­tors rule with iron fists and stilted metaphors

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY RICHARD ROEPER, MOVIE COLUM­NIST rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

Few ac­tors can top Johnny Depp when it comes to mak­ing an en­trance, and some­times it’s great and some­times it’s just weird and takes us out of the movie — and Depp’s ini­tial ap­pear­ance in the am­bi­tious but un­even and sadis­ti­cally off-putting “Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians” lands firmly in the lat­ter cat­e­gory.

The set­ting: a far-flung, colo­nial out­post in an un­named desert coun­try. A linen-clad, benev­o­lent civil bu­reau­crat known only as the Mag­is­trate (Mark Ry­lance) has been com­fort­ably en­sconced in his po­si­tion for years and has al­most no con­tact with his home­land, known as The Em­pire — but now the se­cret po­lice branch of the gov­ern­ment has sent Depp’s Col. Joll to in­ves­ti­gate ru­mors and in­tel­li­gence about a pos­si­ble up­ris­ing from the Mon­go­lian “bar­bar­ians” lurk­ing in the desert and the dis­tant moun­tains.

Ever ami­able and wel­com­ing, the Mag­is­trate stands smil­ing be­side the car­riage as Depp’s colonel slowly ex­its. First we get a glimpse of his gloved hands, then his black uni­form, com­plete with cape and goofy hat, plus he’s car­ry­ing a walk­ing stick — and to the won­der and be­wil­der­ment of the Mag­is­trate and the lo­cals, the colonel is sport­ing steam­punk de­signer sun­glasses.

The colonel (and even­tu­ally his so­cio­pathic as­so­ci­ate, played by Robert Pat­tin­son, who does what he can with an un­der­writ­ten mon­ster of a char­ac­ter) quickly shifts the bal­ance of power, mak­ing it clear to the Mag­is­trate he needs to step aside while the Em­pire’s men in­ter­ro­gate and tor­ture and in­tim­i­date the lo­cals, all un­der the guise of learn­ing the truth about those bar­bar­ians al­legedly plot­ting to wage war. Cue the con­stant and of­ten heavy-handed metaphors about op­pres­sion and racism and warped be­hav­ior ra­tio­nal­ized by un­founded feel­ings of su­pe­ri­or­ity. We know who the real bar­bar­ians are in this tale. “Pain is truth,” the colonel says coldly in ex­plain­ing to the Mag­is­trate why he rev­els in in­flict­ing pain on the lo­cals. “[Ev­ery­thing] else is sub­ject to doubt.”

Di­rected by Ciro Guerra and based on the novel by No­bel Prize-win­ning South African writer J.M. Co­et­zee, “Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians” is a vis­ually im­pres­sive film (it was shot in Morocco and Italy), though the mar­ket­place and the in­te­ri­ors are aw­fully clean and shiny, as if im­per­vi­ous to the dust storms and the harsh con­di­tions. The cam­era lingers on hor­rific shots of abuse, from a lo­cal Mon­go­lian woman (Gana Ba­yar­saikhan) who has been crip­pled and blinded by the Em­pire’s sadis­tic sol­diers, to a scene of kneel­ing men and women strung to­gether by a long piece of ra­zor wire pin­ning their hands to their faces. The over­wrought score and the Or­wellian themes an­nounce “Bar­bar­ians” as a pres­tige pro­ject brim­ming with Big Ideas, but it’s ul­ti­mately stilted and di­dac­tic, and more than a bit nasty.

AP

A colonel from the se­cret po­lice (Johnny Depp) ar­rives at a colo­nial out­post to in­ves­ti­gate ru­mors of re­bel­lion in “Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians.”

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