In an unnamed desert sits a tiny outpost of an unnamed empire. A magistrate splits his day between his official duties and his hobby of archeology. His days are peaceful and straightforward until a colonel arrives to root out the nefarious plot of local warlords through torture and intimidation. Whether the warlords exist or not, whether the threat to the empire exists or not is immaterial. The continuation of the empire demands these tactics.
Waiting for the Barbarians is the dark secret implied by every Merchant Ivory film. (If you got that reference, collect your AARP card because you are old.) It is an emotionally brutal and slow-paced film that has a few good performances and not a lot to say.
“He thinks of the locals as his charges—simple creatures who need his care.”
Waiting for the Barbarians suffers from being too faithful to its source material. But, that may be what happens when you have the original author write the screenplay. Act one is needlessly verbose, bogged down in flowery exposition, as the characters spend a great deal of time stating quite clearly what they think and what they’re going to do. J.M. Coetzee makes Mamet look like Johnathan Glazer. At times, it does seem as if this is a more philosophical essay than a screenplay. But then writer J.M. Coetzee is new to this and doesn’t understand the visual nature of cinema.
Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll gives his worst performance since… well his last one. Deeply entrenched in the Tim Burton style of cinema, Depp is horribly out of place. Surrounded by a cast intent on creating a shared reality, Depp plays a cartoon villain who isn’t so much a character but a collection of personality ticks. He refuses to ever loosen his uniform, or take off his gloves, or even remove his sunglasses. It’s not only that touching anything with his bare flesh would somehow contaminate him, but if he allowed the sunlight of the frontier post to reach his eyes, he might see things as these savages do. It is a character touch that is almost clever.
However, every movement he makes is so deliberate. It is almost like an alien pretending to be a human and not quite pulling it off. It is such a bizarre turn that it has an uncanny valley quality to it. While his performance is uncharacteristically restrained, there is still somehow a larger than life quality to his villainous colonel. The unrestrained and callous brutality of the character renders him little more than a two-dimensional melodramatic villain. The only thing missing is a mustache for him to twirl.
"…Johnny Depp as Colonel Joll gives his worst performance since... well his last one."