‘The Settlers’ NYFF Review: Chile’s Oscar Submission Is a Brutal Western

Often unforgiving and intense, the film shines a much-needed light on history.

Mark Stanley, Camilo Arancibia, and Benjamin Westfall (from left) in The Settlers. Courtesy of MUBI

A brutal, chilling indictment of capitalist colonialism, The Settlers mixes shocking violence with acute apathy. Dismemberment, sexual assault and murder are par for the course, as the film frames the formal creation of Chile in the late 19th century with the knowing, revealing lens of the Western genre.

THE SETTLERS ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Felipe Gálvez
Written by: Felipe Gálvez, Antonia Girardi
Starring: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Alfredo Castro
Running time: 97 mins.

The Settlers follows an expedition ordered by prolific landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), a man whose agricultural businesses took up much of the rugged Patagonia region in both Chile and Argentina. Menéndez has demanded that a path be forged through the area for his livestock, free from natural barriers and so-called savages. He recruits the long-serving MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Texan cowboy (Benjamin Westfall) and, reluctantly, Segundo, a Chilean native of mixed heritage (Camilo Arancibia), making for a powder keg of a trio. Nationalistic rivalries mount, and so too do the atrocities that the three men commit.

Their journey takes them through some of the most inhospitable parts of the world, though they come across fellow territory markers and native tribes alike. The conflict ranges from silly tests of manhood with the former and massacres of the latter, all reflected back to the viewer with the haunting eyes of Segundo. Half Spanish, half indigenous, he’s at war with himself while the other members of his hooting and hollering party are happy to wage war on any brown-skinned person they can find. While Segundo can’t quite make himself an executor of violence like his comrades, his complicity in their actions is just as deadly. 

The film is frequently disquieting, displaying the worst of human nature and human history. When there are no rules, no directives other than take and claim and forge in the name of capital and the burgeoning national identity that allows, the men in charge run wild. There are many moments designed to disturb, to churn one’s stomach. The movie is a punishing acknowledgement of the past. 

The sickening feeling brought on by much of the on-screen action is contrasted with the stark beauty of the landscape, making for a poetic meditation on the smallness of these men trying to conquer and control the land. The Settlers was filmed on location in Tierra del Fuego, surrounded by craggy seasides and mountains, sloping fields and foggy forests. Caught in breathtaking wide shots, it’s no wonder the land is considered valuable—it’s just a matter of what exactly it’s being valued for.

Mishell Guaña in The Settlers. Courtesy of MUBI

The Settlers kicks into another gear in its final act, abandoning its journeymen and their expedition and jumping forward nearly a decade to address the politics of the situation. A government official named Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso) arrives at the sprawling Menéndez property, wanting to speak with the land baron about his increasingly poor reputation. In the metropolitan parts of Chile, rumors are circulating about his horrendous treatment of the native populations in Patagonia; the government wants to address this difficult past, but more than anything, Vicuña wants to create a neat narrative about the unity of Chileans, regardless of heritage. Menéndez and his ilk are aghast at being confronted over genocide, especially when it benefited them and their nation, and Vicuña doesn’t deny their legacy. He does, however, venture to find Segundo and his wife (Mishell Guaña) to hear about what exactly happened on that mission.

The monologue that Segundo delivers as an answer is chilling, a detached discussion of terrible, unpunished violence, but perhaps the most intense moment of the film comes at its close. Rather than retread its bloody roots, The Settlers ends with a condemnation of a constructed national identity, lingering on Guaña’s fierce, intense gaze as she refuses to get in line with Vicuña’s obvious PR stunt. Like the rest of the film, this final moment is smart and interrogative, glaring back at an obscured history.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘The Settlers’ NYFF Review: Chile’s Oscar Submission Is a Brutal Western