Described by its first-time director, Naji Abu Nowar, as a “Bedouin Western,” Theeb hails from Jordan, a country much better known for providing stunning locations to other filmmaking nations than for its own cinema. Indeed, so strong is the association between Jordan’s deserts and Lawrence Of Arabia that several reviews of Theeb have described it as a “corrective” to David Lean’s classic, though the two films have little in common apart from the WWI time period and the presence, briefly, of a British military man. Any film by and/or about the region’s nomads will stand in opposition to a portrait of colonialism, at least implicitly, but Abu Nowar isn’t looking to settle a score here. He’s crafted a simple, old-fashioned adventure story, combined with a coming-of-age tale, that could stand to be considerably less simple.
Part of the problem is that Theeb, while running only 100 minutes, takes nearly an hour to set up its basic premise. The title character (“Theeb” is the Arabic word for “Wolf”) is a boy (Jacir Eid), maybe 11- or 12-years-old, who lives with his older brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh), following the recent death of their father, a respected sheikh. One night, their camp is visited by an English Army officer (Jack Fox), who asks Hussein to serve as his guide to a well located along the route to Mecca. Bound by the Bedouin code of hospitality, Hussein agrees; not wishing to be left behind, Theeb disobeys orders and follows them. When the group arrives at the well, however, they find a corpse floating inside, and get ambushed by bandits soon afterward. Eventually, the only remaining survivors are Theeb and a wounded bad guy (Hassan Mutlag), whose mutual antagonism is complicated by the fact that they need each other’s help if they’re going to make their way back home from one of the harshest middle of nowheres on the planet.
Not to get all Syd Field/Robert McKee or anything, but if a tense, suspicious truce between predator and victim is the heart of your story, it’s probably a good idea to establish that relationship before the movie is two-thirds over. Theeb would likely have made a superlative short film; as a feature, however, it’s at once sparse and bloated, lacking either the depth of characterization or the visual majesty that would justify its early longueurs. (Austrian cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, who’s worked regularly with Ulrich Seidl, is good with stifling claustrophobia, not so adept with landscape.) Eid, the son of one of the film’s producers, holds the screen well without much dialogue, but he can’t enliven Theeb’s predictable emotional journey. Early in the film, Hussein needs to slaughter a goat to feed the Englishman, and invites Theeb to cut the animal’s throat; when Theeb can’t bring himself to do it, there’s little doubt that he’ll be unexpectedly executing someone at the climax, just like Sergeant Al Powell in Die Hard. It’s a bit of a bummer that the most celebrated Jordanian film to date is another tale in which becoming a man means learning to kill.