When watching classic westerns, or even modern sci-fi westerns, you can find yourself fully engulfed by the grand vistas and cool action. There's a reason the genre dominated pop culture for so long.
More often than not, however, the genre becomes so enamored with the myth of the Old West that it ends up glorifying the idea of westerns, whitewashing its stories and characters, and obscuring the role of people of color, all while turning them into hurtful stereotypes and caricatures.
That's not the case with this 2019 Brazilian sci-fi western, which has been described as “the best John Carpenter movie Carpenter didn’t actually make.” Intrigued? Read on, then watch the movie, streaming free online right now.
The movie is Bacurau, and it’s Polygon with that very apt description. In the film, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles don't just reckon with the cultural and political history of Brazil, but of the western genre itself, with a story that explores the lasting harm of colonialism, American imperialism, and the erasure of small communities of color, all while delivering blood-soaked, synth-heavy violence in the vein of Assault on Precinct 13.
Bacurau takes place "a few years in the future," in a small rural town in northeast Brazil, the kind of isolated community you seldom find on a map. The problem is that it becomes clear rather quickly that the town is literally being erased from online maps. The internet starts failing, as does cell phone service, and soon, a group of foreign tourists armed to the teeth with hi-tech gear arrives near the titular town of Bacurau. Do they have something to do with the erasure of the town, or the weird UFO that's constantly roaming the area? Is the corrupt local government that's denying the town from water involved?
No matter the answer, it will quickly be solved with bloodshed.
Bacurau starts out with a fascinating sci-fi premise that subtly builds a sci-fi dystopia. The idea of a rural town virtually disappearing from the extremely online world is already a frightening premise that only becomes scarier during the isolation of a global pandemic that has us feeling separated from the rest of the world.
But the filmmakers also use this sci-fi premise in order to explore our perceived ideas of the civilized and heroic outsider that comes from the city and arrives at the isolated and rural village full of ignorant savages. The town's electronics not working, their electricity going down, and of course, the flying saucer ever-vigilant above the town creates a contrast with the well-equipped foreigners staying in the outskirts of town. The true nature of the world outside Bacurau slowly takes shape, but to say more would be saying too much about the film’s daring arc.
Among other influences on Bacurau, there’s this: The Most Dangerous Game. The classic premise of rich aristocrats being so bored that they'd take to hunting actual people is used here to examine the long history of colonialism and prejudice against small communities in the Brazilian sertão (or outback), a region surrounded by a semi-desert climate and which has been the home to many rebellions against the country's central government. When the town gets threatened by outside forces, then, the only two possibilities for its citizens become to resist and fight, or to die.
There's a reason this movie has often been compared to the works of John Carpenter. Though Mendonça and Dornelles take a slow-burn approach to the conflict at the center of Bacurau, once the tensions explode, they do so in a gleefully violent fashion. John Carpenter's "Night," a track from his Lost Themes album, becomes the anthem for the film's main action scene, where the small, quiet village shows why it's still standing after so many years. The ghoulish synth track makes the skull-bashing and the eye-gouging incredibly cathartic.
Bacurau wears its influences on its sleeve, channeling everything from Star Wars' wipe transitions, to the aesthetic and sound of the Carpenter catalog. All of this results in a sci-fi western that challenges our ideas of what a western can and should represent, who gets to tell which stories, and a warning not to mess with a small town's museum. If you still haven't seen this Cannes Jury Prize-winning film, now's the time to do so.