Eureka: Lisandro Alonso’s shape-shifting, decolonised western puts Indigenous stories front and centre

Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso introduces Viggo Mortensen as a gun-toting cowboy before shifting the focus to Indigenous stories in this beguiling riposte to the colonial western, set over three separate timelines.

13 February 2024

By Tom Charity

Eureka (2023)
Sight and Sound

“Always remember: space, not time. Time is a fiction invented by men.” So says Sadie’s grandfather, a Lakota elder, before he gives her the medicine which will transform her, literally, and open up the last third of Lisandro Alonso’s shape-shifting triptych Eureka.

Certainly the new film picks up from where Alonso’s last feature, the Patagonian western Jauja (2014), left off, no matter that there are nine years between them. And this multinational co-production seems like it will traverse a similar trajectory, beginning with cowboy Viggo Mortensen arriving in a dusty, dirty western town – scantily clad sex workers and trigger-happy gunslingers – apparently (still!) in search of his missing daughter.

But this monochrome first section is a feint, an intentionally crude, ultimately parodic Euro western which, one might speculate, exists primarily to furnish bankable names – Mortensen, Chiara Mastroianni – to float the movie Alonso really wants to make, which is a riposte to the colonial western dynamic, homing in on rather less ‘bankable’ Indigenous actors (or non-professional actors, as the case may be) like Sadie Lapointe and Alaina Clifford, neither of whom has a prior IMDb credit.

Viggo Mortensen as Murphy in Eureka (2023)

At any rate, after some 20 minutes of sub-Leone shoot-’em-up, we zoom out of the frame to discover that the action is playing on an (unwatched) TV in the home of a contemporary Pine Ridge Lakota Nation police officer, Alaina, who is preparing to head out on night patrol, and her niece, Sadie, who coaches high-school basketball.

It’s an abrupt and audacious transition, a Eureka moment if you will, wrenching us from black-and-white to colour, from the fabricated historical reality of the potboiler western (shot in Portugal and Almería in Spain) and dumping us in wintry South Dakota. After the phoney dramatics of the prologue, this second movement marks a reversion to the minimalist, vérité-infused ambience of Alonso’s earlier work: lengthy, slow takes in medium shot, no score (the saloon music in the western is diegetic, though it still evokes the John Ford songbook), and inert scenes that begin earlier, and end later, than storytelling demands, insisting instead on the primacy of situation, place, environment. “Space, not time.”

In this mode, even inherently dramatic situations – Alaina is called to a domestic dispute where a woman threatens another with a knife – are denied the heroic/histrionic catharsis we’re used to seeing in the movies. The knife woman poses more harm to herself than anyone else, and will spend a good part of the next half hour handcuffed in the back of Alaina’s patrol car complaining that she needs to pee. Heading next to a casino after reports of gunfire, Alaina finds nothing but an empty crime scene, the antagonists long since dispersed, and her own thread in the movie likewise tapers off into an Antonioni-esque vanishing point.

Eureka (2023)

This is not to say that Alonso is impervious to the endemic poverty and damage he records on the reserve. On the contrary, the background – the space – is the entire point. And then the question becomes, how to respond? Eureka – drawing conspicuously from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s playbook – implies that nothing less than a paradigm shift is required, a visionary leap into the realm of deep spiritual knowledge, magic and anthropomorphism.

In the movie’s last and most resonant movement, sympathetic, sad-faced Sadie is transmuted and transported from the bleak Badlands winter into the hot, lush Brazilian jungle in the 1970s, to eavesdrop on an Indigenous ceremony involving a young woman and a couple of young men who relate their dreams to a shaman. Now with fluid pans and oneiric lap dissolves, Timo Salminen’s cinematography draws us into an edenic setting as an age-old parable of rivalry and desire plays out.

More radical than Jauja, Eureka is not just an anti-western, but a decolonised western, putting Indigeneity front and centre, and forging a new, liberated form that transcends genre and, indeed, the deeper Western tradition that harks back to Ancient Greece in terms of dramatic convention.

Alonso’s academic commitment to the longueurs of ‘slow cinema’ is bound to try the patience of anyone inculcated in the ‘fiction of time’, which is most of us, and it may be problematic that the movie’s most compelling personality is a jabiru stork, but when all is said and done, Eureka – like Apichatpong’s Memoria (2021) – is a bold attempt to unmoor us, switch around the signposts and un-map terra cognita, embracing both mystery and simplicity as the keys to possibility. 

Eureka is in UK cinemas from 16 February.