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. As the colonel explains in an accent that sounds like a cross between Grindelwald and Capt. Jack Sparrow, those are called sunglasses, so named because they, well, shade one’s eyes from the sun.
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. (One sign: Every time we visit the Magistrate’s offices, fewer and fewer books and scrolls are left on the shelves. The Empire clearly doesn’t want people reading and learning things.) “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, to the Magistrate humiliated and beaten and cast into the streets. 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.