By Clint Worthington
You can’t find Bacurau on a map. In Juliano Dornelle and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s complex tale of class warfare, the titular town sits in a remote corner of Brazil, cut off from the rest of civilization by deserts, dams, and the country’s cruel history. But just as the sleepy village of Bacurau (Portuguese for “nighthawk”) offers an unconventional idyll for its denizens, Dornelle and Mendonça Filho gradually transform it into the stage for a stylish, brutal neo-Western thriller as politically relevant as it is thrilling.
Set “a few years from now” amid a Brazil still wracked by geographical and class divides, BACURAU starts modestly. A young doctor, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), returns to her home village to attend the funeral of her beloved grandmother. As she reacquaints herself with the modest, idiosyncratic rhythms of the town, she and the townsfolk also notice strange things start to happen around them. She hallucinates water bubbling up from her grandmother’s coffin; the town suddenly disappears from GPS maps; strange UFO-like objects follow villagers as they travel to and from neighboring farms. And we haven’t even gotten to Udo Kier yet.
For those who want to go in completely blind to BACURAU’s charms, I caution you to read no further and simply see it for yourself. But for those who still need convincing, read on.
Just as we’ve grown accustomed to the personalities and pleasures of Bacurau’s citizens, Dornelle and Mendonça Filho suddenly turn their camera to another group of people: a group of American tourists holed up in a house just outside of town, armed to the teeth and ready to hunt the villagers for sport. It’s a MOST DANGEROUS GAME situation, with a healthy mix of SEVEN SAMURAI thrown in for good measure. Kier, whose reptilian presence brings the weight of decades of genre sleaze along with him, is their tour guide. They’re gross, unsympathetic, and gleefully racist -- the perfect counterpoint for Bacurau’s utopia, and the kind of slimy villains you can’t wait to suffer by the time BACURAU builds to its inevitably violent showdown.
Films about class divides and the oppression of the wealthy are understandably common of late, and BACURAU slots nicely in with other recent cinematic shaken fists at the 1% (KNIVES OUT, PARASITE). Brazil’s had a long, blood-soaked history which cycles between dictatorship and revolution at the drop of a hat, and Dornelle and Mendonça Filho use BACURAU as a petri dish to explore that history in microcosm. As much as watching the slow-burn battle of wills between gun-toting white interlopers and surprisingly-resourceful villagers may be on a visceral, midnight movie level, there’s a white-hot core of historical rage simmering beneath the surface. As the contents of Bacurau’s historical museum can attest, that rage has had a long time to boil.
Even before we’re introduced to the town’s foreign predators, Bacurau feels under assault even by its own government. Take, for instance, Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), the region’s hapless mayor, who’s forced to shout at the townspeople from a loudspeaker when they refuse to leave their homes during his unwanted visit. Two interlopers from São Paolo find themselves too Brazilian to fit in with the great white hunters, yet insufficiently Brazilian for the residents of Bacurau. (“What are residents of Bacurau called?” one asks. “People!” a child responds.)
There are a lot of characters to juggle in BACURAU’s 131 minutes, the filmmakers committed to granting life to each of their fictional town’s residents. At first, Teresa is our window into Bacurau, but before long she melds into the town’s broader organism, a unified group whose individual members stand out inasmuch as they help each other. Small, elegant moments of drama unfold between them, like Teresa’s on-again, off-again fling with former gangster Pacote (Thomas Aquino) or the lingering specter of the rogueish resistance fighter Lunga (Silvero Pereira), who may prove key to their survival. And one can’t forget Sônia Braga’s steely, determined Domingas, the town’s doctor and the only one capable of facing down Kier’s devilish Michael.
Then, of course, there are the hunters, almost all of whom are pathologically incapable of seeing their prospective targets as anything other than an outlet for their privileged rage. The parallels are hardly subtle -- Bacurau as a stand-in for the Brazilian working class stripped of resources, agency, and even their lives by foreign interests, so much meat for the capitalist grinder. Dornelle and Mendonça Filho want to give their people a chance to rise up and fight back (at least cinematically), and the results are deliciously, deceptively satisfying.
Even without this political context, BACURAU remains a captivating thriller in its own right. Pedro Sotero’s vibrant, sun-soaked cinematography mines oodles of tension out of every desolate steppe or hidden corner. Mateus Alves and Tomaz Alves Souza score BACURAU with an intoxicating blend of Brazilian instruments and John Carpenter-style Minimoog synthesizers, a sonic landscape befitting the film’s playfulness with genre. Eduardo Serrano’s editing expertly juggles the relaxed, slice-of-life cadence of the first half with the slow-burn suspense of the latter. Tones and moods twist in unexpected moments, but not a hair feels out of place.
Given a Brazil whose current president (Jair Bolsonaro) is so notorious for his bigoted and authoritarian views that he’s literally been dubbed “The Brazilian Trump,” it’s not surprising that a movie like BACURAU has materialized from the tears and anguish of its most vulnerable people. At their best, exploitation films and thrillers give the marginalized a chance to symbolically resist the colonization and exploitation that defines their struggles; here, Dornelle and Mendonça Filho have given the people of Brazil a grisly liberating stage upon which to exorcise those demons.
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Clint Worthington is a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound and the founder/editor in chief of The Spool. He also co-hosts the podcast Travolta/Cage with Nathan Rabin, and his headlines can be found at Syfy Wire, Vulture, IndieWire and more.