THE STORY – In 1893, Segundo, a Chilean mestizo; MacLennan, an English army captain; and Bill, an American mercenary; embark on an expedition on horseback to delimit and reclaim the lands that the State has granted to José Menéndez. What appears to be an administrative expedition turns into a violent hunt for Onas, the natives of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.
THE CAST – Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Alfredo Castro, Marcelo Alonso, Sam Spruell, Mishell Guaña & Adriana Stuven
THE TEAM – Felipe Gálvez Haberle (Director/Writer) & Antonia Girardi (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
In Felipe Gálvez’s galvanizing historical Western, “The Settlers,” three men — brutal English lieutenant MacLennan (Mark Stanley), American cowboy Bill (Benjamin Westfall), and mixed-race Chilean sheepherder Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) — prepare their horses and set out on a special mission. They have been hired by wealthy landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) ostensibly to mark out the perimeter of his expansive land holdings in the undeveloped Tierra del Feugo territory at the southernmost tip of South America. Unbeknownst to Segundo, however, is the secret goal for the trip — to eliminate any and all indigenous people they find along the way.
The genocide of the Selk’nam indigenous tribe had been erased from Chilean history books for over two centuries, and Gálvez’s film becomes the first exposure that worldwide audiences will have to the shocking series of atrocities. With that in mind, Gálvezhas has wisely chosen to tell his story through the eyes of Segundo, the sole witness to history who must reconcile his own role in the crimes, all the while trying to stay alive himself.
Though Gálvez doesn’t shy away from using the real names of the perpetrators nor recreating the events (as we know them) of the genocide, “The Settlers” is far from being a preachy political screed. For her part, screenwriter Antonia Girardi has taken the real-life events and fashioned for the film a taut two-act structure that focuses as much on the characters of the men involved as on the atrocities they committed. Her crackling dialogue among the trio on their journey reveals much about the masks behind which several characters hide, all while serving her narrative.
In his direction, Gálvez approaches “The Settlers” as a postmodernist Western, with the desolate mountains of Tierra del Fuego acting as a fine equivalent of Monument Valley, as well as the brooding mano-a-mano conflicts that are so much a part of the genre. Like many modern Westerns, Gálvez uses violence sparingly but graphically. When a worker who is hurt on the job cannot continue, MacLennan casually shoots him dead on the spot, treating him no better than an injured racehorse. The shock of the scene is not so much from the killing but from the matter-of-fact way the violence is perpetrated, a theme that recurs throughout “The Settlers.”
While the atrocities committed by the invaders were historically numerous, Gálvez chooses to focus on only one: a massacre of a small group of Selk’nam people that is followed by MacLennan and Bill, each raping a young survivor. When their colleagues force Segundo to take his turn, the look of anguish on the young man’s face and terror on hers speaks volumes of the true horror captured in “The Settlers” and takes the complexity of the film up to a whole other level.
In addition to Girardi, Gálvez has surrounded himself with a team of craftspeople firing on all cylinders. Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography, for example, is simply stunning in its capturing the desolate beauty of the Tierra del Feugo vistas, and Matthieu Taponier’s editing begins to tighten the vise of suspense slowly until, by the rape scene, you’re almost on the edge of your seat with anxiety at what could come next. And though Harry Allouche’s score does have echoes of Morricone here and there — not inappropriate for a Western-set film — it has a freshness all its own to help heighten the drama.
Likewise, the cast delivers solid work across the board. Stanley effectively makes his MacLennan a man who is putting on a brutal front to hide the fact that he’s not the man he claims to be, and Westfall reveals Bill, with his racist xenophobia, the ugliest of ugly Americans (Their bantering in the film’s ride-and-talk scenes are a particular highlight). But it is in the soulful eyes of Arancibia’s Segundo where the film’s true heart lies. Though non-pro actor Arancibia is not given many lines, he communicates volumes with his face and other physical movements, particularly with his discomfort in the film’s conclusion when forced to tell his story of the crimes to others whom he does not fully trust. It’s lovely work.
Of the many astonishments onscreen, however, the biggest one may be behind the camera: “The Settlers” is Gálvez’s first feature film as a director. The assurance he displays with his pacing, his work with actors, and the integrity through which he tells an important story suggests experience far beyond his own. One suspects that Felipe Gálvez is a name we’ll remember for years because “The Settlers” is a film you won’t soon forget.