The Settlers

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Do you want to participate in this nation? No, this quote isn’t from any of the politicians currently running for office. It might be the last line of The Settlers, Chile’s entry for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It has already won awards at some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and deservedly so. But don’t let its seemingly innocuous title fool you: What follows is a harrowing journey involving extreme violence, rape, love, colonialism — and more. Yes, The Settlers runs the emotional gamut.

Felipe Gálvez makes his feature-film debut as an exciting writer-director with a blistering take on a classic genre. Set in 1900 at the turn of the century, three horsemen travel across the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on behalf of wealthy landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro). They are hotheaded British lieutenant Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley); American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall), who could go either way; and mixed-race marksman Segundo (a standout Camilo Arancibia). If you loved Lawless, The Revenant or HBO’s Deadwood — if you loved seeing that kind of society break down along America’s southern border — then you’re going to love it here. And we start in Chile! A refreshing setting that is both picturesque and eerie.

The film opens with a blood-red title card quoting Thomas More’s Utopia (1516): “Why should I think that God would change my cow?” These titles come up throughout the movie; it works wonders as each serves an artistic purpose to storytelling rather than providing expository details. Another card reads “The King of White Gold” — which honestly could be another movie entirely.

Other notable choices include the 4×3-ish aspect ratio (instead of the widescreen we’re used to), a haunting piano soundtrack that sounds like someone’s smashing the keys, and that color. Some of the desert scenes make the trio look as if they are painted on; it’s like we’re watching their journey from inside a fancy art gallery.

And speaking of which: These guys! You can’t take your eyes off them — even though two out of three are such bad people. Westfall, who looks like some terrifying combination of SNL alums Beck Bennett and Tim Robinson, is chilling as the American shooter who keeps telling boss MacLennan not to trust Segundo because he’s not white. Another high point of The Settlers is how much light its far-in-the-past story sheds on our present, namely the bullshit politics tearing America apart right now.

Segundo, among the three, could be said to be the one who stands out. He hardly speaks but his eyes burning with fury and intensity could almost split the silver screen as he watches his white mates bro out with other hot-tempered settlers along the way. Perhaps it is because Segundo is slowly realizing what their journey is all about: killing as many Indigenous people as necessary along the way. This misanthropic chilling part of The Settlers leads into a foggy location where they are hunting a small group of harmless Natives. The two white men proceed to line up all the dead bodies they can find, cut off their ears as some kind of sick keepsake and even take turns raping a defenseless alive Native woman.

Anyone watching this season of Fargo on FX will recognize character actor Sam Spruell from countless acclaimed roles when his character Colonel Martin enters in the terrifying third act. Introduced by an intimidating title card that reads “The ends of the earth,” he screams at MacLennan after impulsively shooting one of his men out of nowhere: “Have some f*cking self-respect!” Martin invited MacLennan and co to dine and stay with them on their beachside property for the night — but things go south when we slowly discover what Martin’s really after.

Then, seven years into our future (effectively dramatic), where we meet a more grown-up Segundo “settled” down with his wife Kiepja (the great Mishell Guaña). Chilean officials are discussing Alexander MacLennan’s controversial antics from years ago — one named Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso) tracks down Segundo to get more answers — and it’s here that Segundo tells him a story we haven’t even seen before.

And it’s this point in which the film continues to hit home for us modern storytellers; most of our history has been taught to us by stories we’ve read on a page and heard from others. A brilliant turn that interrogates settlers, foundations and people who write history. Whether it’s a quiet moment of Segundo telling an anecdote or seeing the white settlers do terrible things to the Indigenous community — The Settlers will leave you floored, and maybe wanting from such a stylish and gritty climax.

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