20 June 2024
The Settlers watch UK Trailer coming soon

Film Review – The Settlers (2023)

The Settlers watch UK Trailer coming soon
Is the western having a comeback? In its traditional and most familiar form, it’s had its day for sure, but those with a different perspective or setting have been trickling through steadily, bringing some fresh air to what was once the most jaded of genres. Most recently, Scorsese headed back to the 1920s for Killers Of The Flower Moon and later this month Mads Mikkelsen fights for survival in a Danish wasteland in The Promised Land. Before that comes The Settlers, a harrowing South American western with more in common with than Scorsese’s multi-award nominated epic than might be initially apparent.

It’s the start of the 20th century and the southernmost tip of Chile – the Tierra del Fuego cluster of islands – is still something of a no-man’s land. The unforgiving terrain is home mainly to vast flocks of sheep: their owners have carved up the territory but holding onto it is made difficult by the resident indigenous population. One wealthy businessman, Jose Menendez (a genuine historical figure), is determined to secure his land and employs a former British army officer, an American mercenary and a native marksman to keep it safe. Tensions rise among them as they make their way across the never ending miles and it soon becomes apparent that the reason for their journey is to wipe out the resident indigenous tribe.

Felipe Galvez’s debut as writer/director is challenging and harsh, with history indelibly painted in every frame. Visually, the landscapes are stunning and superbly photographed, from the snowcapped mountains glistening in the brilliant sunshine, to the unwelcoming plains where the constant wind makes sure there’s little growing above ankle height. Spectacular it might be at times but, ultimately, the setting is a fitting backdrop for this portrait of a bloody history, one where the real caretakers of the land are wiped out without a second thought. The parallels with Killers Of The Flower Moon are obvious in this context but more disturbing is that the film doesn’t just look back at history: its gaze is very much fixed on the present day.

What is essentially an epic story is restrained in its depiction of most of its horrors: there’s only one shot of multiple bodies and the worst massacre is related by a single character late into the film, leaving the visuals to our imagination. Yet smaller moments bring a distressing brutality where our mind’s eye is near redundant. The picaresque structure allows the trio at the heart of the film to meet a variety of people on their travels, allowing for some impressive small character studies. Former soldier MacLennan (Mark Stanley) isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, boisterously drunk one moment, cold blooded the next, while Bill (Benjamin Westfall) sees right through him and has no time for the indigenous people either. Native marksman Segundo (Camilio Arancibia) is mostly silent: his eyes do his talking and, as the observer of the action, is also the film’s moral centre, despite his involvement in the slaughter.

Make no mistake, The Settlers is a grim watch – and that’s meant as a compliment. Galvez’s vision of this less-than-glorious corner of history – one that, by all accounts, isn’t taught in Chilean schools – is uncompromising. Uncomfortably close to contemporary events, it haunts for hours afterwards with the simplest of shots. A lingering, penetrating close up of a silent native who has witnessed what nobody should ever have to see.

★★★★

In UK cinemas February 9th / Mark Stanley, Camilio Arancibia, Benjamin Westfall, Alfredo Castro and Sam Spruell / Dir: Felipe Galvez / MUBI / 15


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