The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - THE SETTLERS | The Movie Waffler


In 1901 Chile, three men are tasked with clearing a stretch of land of its native population.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Felipe Gálvez

Starring: Mark Stanley, Camilo Arancibia, Benjamín Westfall, Alfredo Castro, Mishell Guaña, Agustín Rittano, Mariano Llinás, Sam Spruell, Adriana Stuven, Luis Machín, Marcelo Alonso

The Settlers poster

Even in the western genre, known for delivering hard-hitting, revisionist takes on proud histories rooted in white supremacy, Felipe Gálvez's directorial debut The Settlers is striking in its portrayal of atrocities committed against an indigenous people. Not because it's particularly graphic (this isn't Soldier Blue) or blunt in its condemnation of the birth of a nation (in this case Chile) but because it's so matter of fact about the evil men do.

This banality of evil is demonstrated almost immediately when a chain gang worker loses an arm in a fencing accident. His Monty Python-esque pleas that he can carry on with one arm are ignored by MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Scottish former British army lieutenant who still wears his red coat. "One less arm is one less man," MacLennan decrees before shooting the man dead. The other prisoners barely flinch, having clearly grown accustomed to such cruelty.

The Settlers review

MacLennan is essentially hired muscle for landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), who assigns the Scot the task of clearing a path for his sheep to be brought to the Atlantic coast. "Clearing" translates as murdering every native that stands in the way. To accompany him, MacLennan selects Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), a young mixed race Mestizo who is a crack shot with a rifle. Unimpressed with his selection, Menéndez demands that the pair be joined by Bill (Benjamin Westfall), a Texan mercenary.

As the two English speakers quarrel while Segundo rides silently along, the film initially resembles many a classic western setup. The difference here is that it's unlikely that this odd trio will bond in any conventional manner. All three hold the others in contempt, and nobody trusts anyone else. Segundo's ethnicity might suggest he's set to rebel and side with the people with whom he shares half of his blood, but again convention is bucked. Segundo is concerned chiefly with staying alive, though his finger does occasionally waver over his trigger when he has his white travelling companions in his sights.

The Settlers review

The Settlers treads a Conradian path as its protagonists venture toward a beating heart of darkness. They encounter friends and foes, though sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. The film is largely broken into vignettes detailing such encounters. A meeting with Argentine soldiers results in pathetic displays of macho rivalry as the men square off in bouts of marksmanship, arm wrestling and boxing. A tribe of native Onas is wiped out by the gun-wielding MacLennan and Bill while Segundo fires his gun in the air, faking participation. At the coast the men stumble across a Colonel Kurtz figure in the form of a British army colonel played by an intensely sinister Sam Spruell.

The latter encounter reinforces the idea that prejudice and notions of superiority are far more complex than simply white men versus natives. Having lorded it over Segundo throughout the expedition, MacLennan is suddenly reduced to a similarly lowly stature by the English Colonel, who looks down on him for being a Scot and a lower rank. Seeing MacLennan reduced to a pathetic, trembling figure when faced with the sort of authority he sought to emulate himself speaks volumes about how imperialism was able to function.

Shooting in 1.33 ratio, cinematographer Simone D'Arcangelo paints tableaus of men riding across a harsh terrain, a rugged beauty dismissed by those begrudgingly working its land, likely to avoid imprisonment in their own homelands. For all their bluster, both MacLennan and Bill are working class men who no doubt were treated as badly in their own lands as they now treat the natives of this new world, like bullied children who grow up to beat their kids. They're a despicable pair, but all too recognisable.

The Settlers review

It would be impossible to describe Segundo as the "heart" of the film, rather he represents the empty cavity where a heart once throbbed. Like his land, he's been ravaged, anything resembling a soul ripped out of his core. That he struggles to even summon up anger tells you how broken he's become. When MacLennan insists that he join in the rape of a captured native woman, Segundo displays the closest the film comes to compassion by ensuring she escapes a fate worse than death. You can't help think that he is himself a product of such an unholy union.

In the closing scenes we flash forward several years as a government representative speaks of forging a new Chile where settlers and natives can live in harmony. As he attempts to coerce a native woman into posing for a photo while dressed as a European and drinking tea, it's clear that harmony means the extinction of a culture, not by guns this time, but an erasure nonetheless. The Settlers suggests that like Segundo, the nation of Chile is the product of a forced coupling.

The Settlers
 is on MUBI UK/ROI now.