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Review: The biblical ‘Last Days in the Desert’ finds Ewan McGregor playing both sinner and saint

Ewan McGregor, left, and Tye Sheridan costar in the film "Last Days in the Desert."
(Francois Duhamel)

In the human space between a meditation completed and a ministry begun lies writer/director Rodrigo Garcia’s hushed, speculative parable “Last Days in the Desert,” in which Jesus (Ewan McGregor), his 40-day fast at an end, becomes embroiled in the domestic strife of an isolated family.

The quietly churning ingredients in this parched wilderness homestead are a protective, stubborn father (Ciarin Hinds) fearful of the larger world, his ready-to-bolt son (Tye Sheridan) who doesn’t want to be stuck living in the stone hut they’re building, and a sick mother (Ayelet Zurer) whose imminent death will force the issue between the two. Tossing in cynical commentary and the odd dare is the Devil, also played by McGregor as a sort of impish double, with the tiniest extra tang and the occasional flash of teeth.

Far from a preachy, boldly religious movie, Garcia has instead fashioned a contemplative small-scale drama, albeit one exquisitely photographed by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who gives Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California a supple yet epic barrenness. The quartet of performances are uniformly solid (especially Hinds), and the general mood is of an observant holy man’s cautious tinkering with what will help ease people’s suffering, rather than push them toward rash decisions.

But there’s only so much a well-meaning, decorously psychological four-hander can do, and ultimately “Last Days in the Desert” never quite hits its stride as either an art piece or a biblical variation. At times a beautiful wandering, at other times an admirable character study, but rarely a powerful whole.

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‘Last Days in the Desert’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some disturbing images and brief partial nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica


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