The Settlers

  • 13 Apr - 19 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

Director Jonathan Glazer’s Oscar-winning film The Zone of Interest, in addition to being a meditative examination of evil, did something rather unexpected. It exposed the coloniser-mindset of the Nazi regime, inserting its ‘protagonists’ in the middle of a cruel culture war based on the principles of aggressive expansion. The extermination of Jews was incidental to the Nazis’ primary plan – the takeover of territories. In that regard, the revisionist Western The Settlers can be seen as a queasy companion piece to Glazer’s masterpiece.

It has an equally poignant ending, one that questions complicity in the most unambiguous terms. As in The Zone of Interest, and even Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, this climax takes place after a time jump, when enough distance has been created between inexplicable acts of horror and the natural desire to address them. But the story begins in the year 1893, when a Scottish army officer is hired by a businessman to survey the vast lands under his purview and exterminate the indigenous population that has lived on it for centuries. The officer, Alexander McLennan, is accompanied on his mission by an American gunslinger named Bill, and a mixed-race local man – a ‘mestizo’ – named Segundo.

As they travel across the Tierra del Fuego – a hell on Earth if there ever was one – the trio finds itself in increasingly horrific scenarios juxtaposed against the placid beauty of the landscape. To be clear, The Settlers isn’t a horror picture – the grammar of its storytelling is borrowed from old Westerns – although each new scene is more disturbing than the last. On the third or fourth day of their journey, the frontiersmen come across a camp. While it is initially implied that this might be an enemy settlement, the movie eventually reveals that these ‘adversaries’ were nothing more than a harmless family of indigenous people. This terrible episode sets into motion a tale of violence, depravity, and power.

Debutante director Felipe Gálvez Haberle has an uncompromising eye. There’s a quiet rage to this film, echoed in the almost painterly frames that the filmmaker creates with his cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo; frames that hide beneath their beauty a unique kind of brutality. Never before has a shot of three men discussing whether a horse once ridden can be eaten looked this stunning. It is all an illusion, Haberle appears to be saying – the economic progress, the technological advancement, the political evolution that governments boast about, when it has been accomplished on the back of murder, vengeance and greed.

The extermination of minorities is followed by a systematic erasure of the truth – every cowboy movie that John Wayne ever starred in is fundamentally guilty of denying the disturbing foundation upon which America was built. As Glazer showed in The Zone of Interest, opening museums in honour of the fallen millions (and charging an entry fee from wide-eyed tourists) is its own form of mundane horror. In many ways, The Settlers is a long-overdue dressing down of the Western genre itself. The vistas are just as vast as anything that Sergio Leone ever filmed, but you wouldn’t want a single frame of this movie as your wallpaper; the beauty has been blotted by bloodshed. The Settlers’ success as a film is steeped in the disheartening knowledge that anybody in the world could recognise the atrocities of their own country’s past in it.