This almost unbearably brutal and violent western drama-thriller from first-time feature director Felipe Gálvez Haberle was a prize winner at Cannes and Chile’s official entry for best international feature at the Academy Awards. At once explicit and yet mysterious and elliptical, it dramatically recreates some of the story behind the exploitation and colonisation of Tierra del Fuego by European commercial interests and the Santiago political establishment at the beginning of the 20th century. This involved the genocidal slaughter of Indigenous peoples by the now notorious businessman José Menéndez, a kind of Latin American oligarch who had been granted land rights for sheep farming, and used mercenaries to hunt and butcher Patagonian natives; these hired killers included ex-British Army soldier Alexander MacLennan, known as the “red pig”.
Chilean character actor Alfredo Castro plays the cold-eyed Menéndez, and Mark Stanley is the brutish MacLennan who still wears his red military tunic and affects the title “Lieutenant”. An ugly scene suggests that his capacity for violence, always substantial, escalated at least partly due to being brutalised himself. Haberle imagines an American “Indian-hunter” called Bill (Benjamin Westfall) who goes out with MacLennan on their murderous expeditionary adventure into the vast and forbidding southern wilderness and they have a tracker called Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is a “mestizo” – part indigenous – and resented by Bill who fears Segundo will turn on them.
There is a scary encounter with another British soldier-for-hire, played with dark menace by Sam Spruell, who appears to have the same vocation as MacLennan, but for whom the violence and alienation have become (even) more normalised. With a terrifyingly empty landscape shot by Simone D’Arcangelo and crazed, clamorous, tympany-clashing score by Harry Allouche, The Settlers is really unsettling: an evocation of the violence and colonial brutality mixed into the foundations of Chile’s nation state, and which, it is implied, provided a lesson in political violence for later on.
And what is worse is the history rewriting and legacy management: a sequence in which Indigenous peoples are forced to pose for semi-official photographs in demure western clothes, coerced into erasing their own distinct identity and appearing to cooperate in a new voluntary submissive absorption into white culture. It’s a fierce, stark, almost primitive parable of cruelty and power.