James Freeman was a well-off young white American man suffering from incurable depression… or maybe he just could not get onboard with the bullshit of well-off white America and its insistence on conformity, financial success at any price, and the self sacrificed to mindless consumerism. When doctors and therapy and pharmaceuticals didn’t help, he decided — as a last-ditch effort before killing himself — to hie off to Peru, find a shaman, and test out the supposedly mind- and spirit-altering qualities of the ayahuasca plant, which is used in traditional rituals and is said to have cured mental illnesses.
I am sympathetic to many of the underlying assumptions of The Last Shaman and of Freeman’s predicament, such as that our way of life is killing us, and that people are sometimes overmedicated with costly corporate drugs that don’t actually help; that, in short, our culture is making so many of us sick in our minds and our bodies. And yet I still found this “documentary” — the first film from actor Raz Degan — to be a pile of outrageous sophomoric garbage, one that depicts its subject as a tragic hipster more worthy of disdain than sympathy and, ironically, evinces all the slick salesmanship of a misbegotten ad for a sports drink or a sneaker that hopes to latch on to trendy notions of vague spirituality. “I want to feel again,” Freeman announces, and it might as well be the tagline for a faux-woke marketing campaign for Diet Soul soda.
And then comes the poverty tourism! “I’m skeptical about shamanism,” Freeman informs us, and we can see why: in the towns and cities he meets only “shamans” who claim to have cured AIDS with ayahuasca, and those who say that Jesus speaks to them while they are under the influence of the plant. Worst of all is the appalling American ex-con “shaman” — “I’m also a spiritual warrior” — who brags about the street value of the ayahuasca he has on hand and philosophically defends his side gig in cockfighting. No, Freeman must travel deep into the Amazonian jungle, away from those who prey on gap-year backpackers and curious tourists, to the true shamans, the ones uninfected by Western values. The noble savages living in huts. The more “pure” those people Freeman encounters are, the less they are allowed to speak for themselves. But Degan is sure to include plenty of footage of them lolling around blissfully unspoiled by all those toxic ideas ruining Freeman’s life… such as time and money. The shaman Freeman eventually works with? Naturally, he doesn’t charge for his services.
The fetishization of the culture and the spiritual practices Freeman are exploring is bad. The film’s credulity is bad: there is no questioning whatsoever of what medical value ayahuasca may actually have. (That would require Western scientific expertise, which the film has already concluded is bogus. Did I mention that Freeman’s parents are both doctors, and worry about all the unknowns involved in unlicensed shamans giving their son an unregulated hallucinogenic substance? Mom and Dad come across as nice, concerned people, and if there’s any reason to blame them in particular for their son’s unhappiness, we are not offered it. But Degan shoves them into the villain role anyway.)
But probably the most obnoxious thing about The Last Shaman is the earnest adolescent urgency of its attempts to convince us of the rightness and righteousness of Freeman’s newfound wokeness. Like a teenager absolutely convinced that it is his moral imperative to bestow upon you a truth you surely remain blissfully unaware of, Degan assembles trippy montages meant to give us an idea of what Freeman experiences when he finally consumes ayahuasca. The snippets of home movies of Freeman’s childhood are fine: people who use the plant as a drug do report vivid upwellings of childhood memories. But it seems unlikely that Freeman has psychedelic visions of piles of pills on pharmaceutical assembly lines like something out of an unironic pastiche of Reefer Madness.
And did know that Paul McCartney was in a WAY BETTTER BAND before Wings?