It was a sad coincidence that I caught a screening of the Brazilian thriller Bacurau on the day the news came down that José Mojica Marins, the country’s horror pioneer and the creator of Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe), had passed away. Although Marins’ work and Bacurau are very different in terms of aesthetics, both are very much products of their environments, steeped in local occult folklore in the former case and political subtext in the latter, and both push past the boundaries in their graphic depictions of violence.
Bacurau (a Cannes Jury Prize winner beginning its U.S. release March 6 in New York and expanding nationwide from there) holds off on the bloody stuff for a while, though, immersing us for over an hour in the lives of the people in the tiny rural town of the title. Life and the means to live it are simple in Bacurau—it’s a place where a doctor’s morning “patient” is a drunk seeking a bed to sleep off the past night’s indulgences—though they’re not entirely technologically backward. Smartphones abound, and the village teacher instructs his pupils with the help of an iPad synced to a flatscreen TV in his classroom. One day, he tries to show the kids where Bacurau is located on an onscreen map…but is unable to find it. And the cell service becomes spotty. There’s an ominous development right from the movie’s opening, as Teresa (Bárbara Colen) and Acacio, a.k.a. Pacote (Thomas Aquino), while driving to Bacurau, come across an accident that has caused a truck to spill its cargo of coffins all over the road.
Something seems amiss, and writer/directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles take their time in gradually revealing the specifics. What becomes clear, as we get to know Bacurau’s various residents, is that whatever their interpersonal squabbles, they’re capable of uniting against a common enemy. That’s made humorously clear by their group reaction to the visiting mayor, Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), a blustering phony whose idea of a humanitarian gesture is to dump a literal truckload of old books in the middle of town, even though he was responsible for a dam that has robbed the residents of their water supply, forcing them to have it trucked in. When one such vehicle arrives having survived an attack en route, the threat becomes more concrete, even as the particulars of those behind it remain vague. There’s even a hint, midway through the film, of a science-fictional element hovering on the periphery of the story.
By this point in Bacurau, there’s the pleasurable sensation of watching a story that could go anywhere, and that any direction would make sense given Filho and Dornelles’ skill at infusing their workaday social drama with just enough hints of unease. Their love of genre is also evident from the beginning via playful shout-outs to past classics: An early subtitle sets the action “A few years from now” (cf. Mad Max), they employ visual wipes à la Star Wars, and there’s a John Carpenter synth piece on the soundtrack. Carpenter, and his portraits of small, isolated groups under siege, is a clear reference for the filmmaking duo, as is the cinema of Sergio Leone and its sun-baked settings.
Which is not to say that Bacurau lives by homage or pastiche; Filho and Dornelles have their own skills at suspense, which become abundantly evident when a couple of gaudily dressed strangers (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) ride into town on motorbikes. They’re clearly out of their element, not necessarily welcome there, and their interactions with the citizens, while polite on the surface, tingle with growing tension. Here again, you get the sense that things could go one of a few ways, none of them pleasant.
When this situation eventually comes to a head, it jolts Bacurau squarely into thriller/horror territory, and for those who want to preserve the ensuing surprises for themselves, here’s a SPOILER ALERT to stop reading here. Not only does this turn send the movie plunging into much more violent areas, it’s where the political themes become amplified as well. Even for those unaware of any particular recent conflicts in Brazil, it’s evident that Filho and Dornelles have a statement about governmental and class oppression bubbling under the mayhem. The key antagonist is Michael (Udo Kier), leader of a trigger-happy group of Americans and Brits fueled by a sense of superiority over the South Americans whose land they’re invading. (It’s another coincidence that Bacurau is making its American debut around the same time as the very similarly themed The Hunt.) Kier is canny casting for this role, as the German-accented Michael’s very identity embodies his xenohostility; when one of his team insults him as “a Nazi,” he counters that having lived in the U.S. longer than the other guy has been alive, he’s more of an American.
As the conflict builds and explodes, the filmmakers alternate rivetingly tense but bloodless scenes with startling splatter (kudos to makeup and effects creator Tayce Vale), shot through with a devious sense of humor. Right through to the end, Bacurau keeps you on your toes, never quite sure just how far its characters—on both sides of the battle—will go, but watching with great anticipation to find out.