The story takes place in a border fortress city located on the southern edge of the desert. Colonel Joll (Johnny Depp) arrives there to prevent an uprising, rumored to be prepared by local tribes, who are called barbarians.
The Colonel interrogates the prisoners brutally – from the character of Johnny Depp, no kidding, I got goosebumps. He could easily kill an innocent person after agonizing tortures. Next to Joll is his loyal assistant, officer Mendel (Robert Pattinson). You could call him the Colonel's shadow if that were true. Not a shadow, but a reflection in the mirror, however less disfigured by anger – the viewer still sees the officer as a person: when asked how he can sleep peacefully after what he did to people, he responds aggressively, because, in fact, a quiet sleep is just a dream for him.
The one that stands against the imperial lawlessness is Magistrate, masterfully performed by Mark Rylance. The main character of the film is a real idealist, a person who Serves with all the possible responsibility; he is also a humanist for whom the life of a person is more important than some protocol. He is tolerant because he staunchly endures what Colonel Joll does with the prisoners, awaiting that he will soon leave and life will come back to its former course. But in desperation the magistrate revolts against the Empire. He is fiercely protecting the nomads, cannot watch them being abused since the Imperials treat them worse than cattle, because "even cattle is not killed with a hammer".