I’m generally very strict about what I write full reviews of and the main rule above all is that they are generally supposed to be exclusively reserved for movies that I see in theaters. I hold this standard for a lot of reasons: partly because it ensures I judge a movie based on an ideal viewing experience, partly to reward distributors that are keeping theatrical alive, partly to keep myself from lazily waiting until things are on home video, and partly just because the things that are worth reviewing are generally just going to be the ones that earn theatrical releases. I’m pretty dogmatic about this and as much as possible I’m planning to stick to this rule even during the era of the Coronavirus and sheltering at home even if it means focusing the blog more on older movies or special articles than full reviews during the crisis. That having been said I did ultimately decide to make an exception for Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s a movie from a director who interests me and which I’ve been keen to see since its Cannes release, secondly because it was a movie that Kino International had planned to give a full (if platformed) theatrical release to and had put out in New York and Los Angeles before theaters were shut down nationwide, and thirdly (and most importantly) they were employing a special distribution method called KinoMarquee where you can support a local theater with each stream. With all that in mind I decided I would break tradition and cover this like a theatrical film, but make no mistake I am not happy about this compromise. The price of the stream was higher than it would usually be to see a matinee in this area, the options to make it play on my TV were not ideal (arthouse streamers need to get their act together and provide apps to Xbox, PS4, and/or LG smart TVs, looking at you Criterion), and I’m not entirely sure I got optimal picture quality, but in a crisis it will do.
The film is set in a near future in a fictional remote village in northern Brazil called Bacurau. It doesn’t necessarily follow any one character but instead kind of establishes the town as an entity early on and the various eccentric people who live there. We learn that there is quite a bit of tension with the town’s mayor Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), but aside from that it feels like business as usual in the town until the villagers suddenly notice that the town is no longer showing up on Google maps, and then a water truck comes in with bullet holes in its tank, and then they lose phone signals altogether. Eventually they come to realize that what’s going on is that there’s a party of wealthy largely American hunters lead by one experienced mercenary (Udo Kier) camped out on the outskirts of town who are planning to hunt the town’s inhabitants for sport and the inhabitants need to rally themselves less they find themselves picked off one by one.
Bacurau is a bit of a departure for Kleber Mendonça Filho, who didn’t seem to show much in the way of genre sensibility in his previous films Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. What I think links the film to those earlier works is a focus on community and on protecting them from wealthy outsiders be it from overbearing private security forces, land developers, or human hunters. He shows some flashes of unique style here, namely the employment of Kurosawa/Lucas wipe cuts and a couple of moments that definitely revel in the gore of it all, but the movie never quite starts playing out like either an action movie or a horror movie and it maintains that Filho leisurely pace and tone. Where it doesn’t hold up as well is in the acting, especially in the American villains. Now, if you watch enough foreign films you will encounter examples like this where directors clearly kind of half-ass their direction of English speaking characters and I’m sure the same problem widely exists in English language films with non-American characters, but regardless it’s pretty hard to ignore that the dialogue and line readings by these characters are pretty weak. Not completely incompetent but certainly weak.
Of course it’s hard to talk about this movie without acknowledging the coincidence of it getting a U.S. release not long after the release of Hollywood’s own political “Most Dangerous Game” riff, The Hunt. I hated that movie and while Bacurau is certainly done a lot better it still falls into some of the same traps. Before I should get into this I should humble myself a little and admit that I know very little about Brazilian politics and may be missing quite a bit in here, but there does seem something more than a bit simplistic about casting greedy heartless foreigners as the ruthless villains to be fought off. I get that there’s more of a punching up aspect about a Latin American country doing this to Americans than the reverse but at a certain point xenophobia is still xenophobia and the movie doesn’t really do a whole lot to connect these villains to any real act of international exploitation outside of just making them these kind of one note violent people, and frankly in the era Jair Bolsonaro the Brazilian countryside might have enough internal threats without worrying about evil foreigners.
Between this and The Hunt I’ve really come to question the usefulness of “The Most Dangerous Game” as any kind of political allegory. Richard Connell’s original short story was never really supposed to be about class; the villain was an aristocrat but his villainy was primarily a product of him just being crazy and evil and his victim was a rich person as well. The intended theme of that story was simply the ethics of hunting; the victim was a hunter of big game animals and over the course of the story he came to learn what it was like when the tables were turned. But trying to sum up an entire class, or ideology, or nationality based on something as dehumanizing as hunting man is just too blunt and casts too big of a net and the notion that you’d find large group of such sociopaths and that they’d expect to be able to do it without detection just doesn’t scan as plausible. There’s an “us against them” element to it all that just doesn’t sit well during these times. Bacurau is less flippant and less charged than The Hunt, and it’s mostly better made and has more interesting elements that redeem it, but there’s still something about it that does not really sit entirely well with me. It’s worth a look, and I’m willing to give it some benefit of the doubt that there are some local references that are lost on me.
*** out of Five