In Last Days in the Desert, Ewan McGregor indulges in an actorly gimmick worthy of putting on mounds of muscle or shedding dozens of pounds: he plays both Jesus and Satan.
A dramatization of Jesus’ trial in the wilderness, the movie has plenty of production excellence to recommend it. There is Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, which captures weathered faces in striking contrast with the vast, equally weathered landscape. Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans provide a sparse string score, which delicately fades in and out as if it was being carried by the wind. And Rodrigo García, the writer and director, manages to capture a more nuanced understanding of Jesus Christ as sacrificial savior by avoiding, rather than dutifully recreating, your typical Bible storybook scenes. But none of that would have mattered if McGregor hadn’t pulled off the trick of making two iconic figures register as flesh-and-blood characters.
Consider his take on Jesus, here called Yeshua. McGregor often employs a middle-distance stare, one that didn’t always serve him well in the Star Wars prequels, where we could feel that it was a green screen he was really staring at. But here that gaze communicates deep reflection, which is the one activity — save for wandering about the desert — that Yeshua engages in the most. This is a Jesus still trying to wrap his mind around his ministry, both what it means in the moment and what it means to leave the desert and go on to face the cross.
The movie departs from the Biblical narrative by having Yeshua encounter an isolated family: a stern father (Ciarán Hinds), a dying mother (Ayelet Zurer) and a teen son (Tye Sheridan). These three become a microcosm for humanity, especially when Satan uses them as pawns. At one point he taunts Yeshua that God fails to meet the family’s needs because “he’s so busy with little things … the shape of a drop of dew.”
McGregor’s Satan is prankish, needling and nervous. If his Yeshua exhibits a bedrock of assurance beneath his wondering (he frequently sighs in rest, not despair), his Satan suggests an underlying unease beneath the boasts. There is a wonderful detail as Yeshua and Satan sit by a fire and the latter instinctively opens his mouth in awe at the sight of a falling star. Accused later of appreciating God’s creation, he unconvincingly scoffs, “I’ve seen every shooting star since the first one.”
It’s to McGregor’s credit that I completely forgot in this moment that I was watching the same actor. He gets some help from the costume design (Satan is a bit more put together, while Yeshua’s robes resemble a pile of rags), but mostly this is a matter of performance. By varying the inflections of his voice, shifting the intensity of his gaze and even altering his posture (Yeshua is often in repose while Satan appears ready to pounce), McGregor turns what could have been a dry Sunday school exercise into an acting showcase.