In Budd Boetticher’s 1959 parable of how we remember violence, “Ride Lonesome”, Randolph Scott confronts the man who killed his wife on the very spot where he murdered her.
“That was a long time ago,” the killer said. “I almost forgot.” Scott’s answer? “A man can do that.”
Also a company. Especially when it’s all too convenient to forget things so unpleasant they can shake our very sense of identity. Felipe Galvez’s Chilean western “The Settlers” may remind some viewers of a Boetticher movie when they watch it: following three men on horseback on a journey across the country, it dramatizes questions of identity and belonging, and how these things can be written in violence. Most Boetticher-like, in a tight 98-minute “The Settlers” says more than many movies double its runtime. It’s one of the most chilling artsy Westerns to see the light of day in quite some time, as provocative for its ideas, dialogue and characterization as it is for the beauty of its empty landscapes.
It’s the turn of the last century. A wealthy landowner who bought most of Tierra del Fuego, Jose Menendez (a real-life historical figure, whose descendants own much of the land today), recruits the Scottish military man who manages his security to round up the men he needs and embark on a mission to exterminate the indigenous Selk’nam people on their land. The Scot, MacLennan (Mark Stanley), only wants one person to accompany him: a half-breed metis, of indigenous origin himself, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is barely emerging from adolescence. Menendez (Alfredo Castro) doesn’t have that, however. The landowner insists that MacLennan also bring Bill (Benjamin Westfall), a cunning Texan with a loud drawl and big reputation. “Look at him,” Menendez said, pointing to Segundo. “And look at Bill.” Menendez was never going to let MacLennan take just one part-Native boy to kill other Natives.
They set out on their journey through Tierra del Fuego, through landscapes that look more like Iceland than what is commonly thought of as South America. MacLennan, a loud lout still wearing his slightly tattered red coat from the Queen’s Army, where he claims to have been a lieutenant, is prone to breaking into song and boasting about what he is capable of. On one occasion in Egypt, or possibly the Transvaal, he and his men ate his horse to stave off starvation. “Aww, you can’t eat your horse,” Bill says, sometimes acting like a caricature of an old Hollywood cowboy. “It’s like eating a friend.”
That a moment of such relative levity and character building could then be followed by the chilling scene of their actual massacre of the Selk’nams, and a gruesome moment when MacLennan tries to get Segundo to rape one of the native women, shows a remarkable ability to shift from one tonality to another. Galvez understands that inhumane acts can be committed by people who actually appear quite human at other times – it’s not just a monochromatic landscape of horror – and that’s perhaps even more unsettling. Segundo is the one character who mostly remains silent, the film’s observant character and, in a way, the moral center, even as complicit as he himself is in the massacre.
Galvez constructed a picaresque travel film built around the three travelers meeting different people along the way. That you have such a sense of who everyone is, in addition to portraying the terror of the Selk’nam genocide, is a balance of intimate and epic that you wouldn’t expect from a rookie filmmaker. But Galvez, making his feature film debut, somehow pulls it off. That he doesn’t stress his points, and leaves parts of the story ambiguous, is all the more impressive. He made a film with messages which is not one. And as beautiful as many of the images are, some of the compositions shot like Dutch master paintings by cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo, it never feels like native suffering is just art’s fodder. .
“The Settlers,” for all its artistry, is also a deeply felt work of activism with a message that needs to be heard in Chile. Just as nothing about the Pinochet coup of 1973 or the resulting dictatorship is taught in Chilean schools today, nothing about the genocide of the Selk’nam, a culture considered extinct, with a single person alive today who can speak their language. .
Galvez’s film will likely be controversial in its home country in a way that another film, also debuting at walking sticks 2023, will not in itself be: Flower Moon Killers by Martin Scorsese. The genocide and displacement of Native Americans is more widely taught in the United States, but Scorsese’s film also sheds light on a particular slice of that history that many viewers may not be familiar with. Each of these movies come from very different places – one a first film, one an old master, one made for very little, the other for around $200 million. Hopefully, the attention that “Killers” will get rubs off on “The Settlers,” who could use it. It’s a film that shows that, as easy as it is to forget the past, it’s even easier when it was never taught in the first place.
“The Settlers” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.