If Jordan is not particularly known for its cinematic offerings, it’s not for lack of natural resources. The country’s desert vistas were seemingly put on this earth to be filmed in a 21:9 aspect ratio, and its stunning rock formations make Monument Valley’s look pedestrian by comparison. The film that most famously captured these landscapes is a little epic called Lawrence of Arabia, which of course is not Jordanian and not particularly interested in a nuanced portrayal of Arab culture.
Theeb, perhaps the most celebrated Jordanian film to date, is set during the same time period as Lawrence and makes use of the same breathtaking scenery. This has led to some inevitable comparisons, but the two films could hardly be further apart in terms of scope and ambition. First-time director Naji Abu Nowar had no interest in crafting another towering colonial-era epic. Instead, he set out to make a film as lean and as sparse as the desert itself, with long, protracted silences punctuated by brief sequences of savage violence.
If this sounds familiar, well, it should. Theeb is one of the most by-the-books Westerns to ever take place outside the American West. Abu Nowar himself has even taken to describing his film as a “Bedouin Western,” and the genre’s archetypes are impossible to ignore as soon as you start to pick up on them. So no, Theeb does not try to rewrite the book on colonialism, Westerns, or even the basic coming-of-age adventure tale. It plays more like an homage than a revelation, and it suffers from many of the issues that plague directorial debuts: uneven pacing, a thin storyline, and a habit of mimicking other, slightly more sure-footed films.
Theeb is Arabic for “Wolf,” and it’s also the name of the film’s young protagonist, a boy of roughly 10 years. Theeb (Jacir Eid) and his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh) are the sons of a respected sheikh who has recently died, and it’s clear that Hussein has taken on the role left unoccupied by their father. He teaches Theeb to draw water, shoot a rifle, and perform other skills necessary for survival in the desert. For the most part, the boy is a willing learner, but he’s also headstrong and in many respects still a child. He balks, for example, at the unsavory task of slaughtering a goat.
When an English Army officer (Jack Fox) shows up and asks Hussein to guide him to a nearby well, he agrees and they set off the next morning. Not wanting to be left behind, Theeb sneaks off to join them and eventually joins their traveling party. It’s an ill-fated journey, though. Soon after they arrive at their destination, they’re ambushed by gunmen, and Theeb is forced to look on while his brother and their companions are systematically picked off.
This is really where the story begins, with Theeb left alone in the desert with little chance of survival. The problem is that the film takes nearly an hour to get there, leisurely plodding its way through so many chapters of exposition that the main course feels like a bit of a letdown. One could argue that Abu Nowar uses this time to build up lots of tension before the payoff, but it’s simply not a wise use of resources in a movie that only runs 100 minutes.
By the time Theeb meets his principal antagonist — a wounded gunman (Hassan Mutlag) whose fellows leave him behind — they barely have time to develop a relationship. We know that there will eventually be a Western-style standoff, as everything to this point has been nudging us in that direction. We also know that Theeb will probably end up with blood on his hands in some way, signifying his loss of innocence and official entry into the World of Men. We just don’t really know why we should care.
What we’re left with is a frustrating, undeniably beautiful piece of art that gets a lot of things right and a few crucial things wrong. Theeb is probably not a game-changer for Jordanian cinema, even if its gorgeous look makes it seem like one. It’s more Cormac McCarthy than Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s a fine starting point for Abu Nowar. But like most things you’ll find in the desert, it could use a little more meat on its bones.