If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, John Carpenter’s cheeks should be flushing a shade of “aw shucks” red right around now. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ new movie Bacurau is simultaneously an affectionate love letter to the horror maestro’s career, a two-hour object lesson in genre riffing, and the best Carpenter movie Carpenter didn’t actually make.
Bacurau is undoubtedly structured around love for Carpenter’s work. A school in Bacurau’s central location, the remote mountain hamlet that gives the film its title, features a dedication to “João Carpenteiro.” One of Carpenter’s lost themes, “Night,” plays on the synth-heavy soundtrack. Tribute movies often represent death rather than life in cinema — they can just be a series of recycled gestures that lose their value over years of shallow repetition. But Filho and Dornelles have style, talent, and a sense of purpose. There’s an urgency to the Brazilian filmmakers’ direction, and with it, a personal stake in the material. This isn’t homage for homage’s sake, and it isn’t about John Carpenter, per se. It’s about Brazil, the sertão, and colonialism. It’s a modern take on Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 — slick, vital, and crackling.
The film starts out ominously. Bacurau has seen better days, before its nakedly corrupt mayor, Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), dammed up its water supply, forcing the locals to have water trucked in. Things were also better before a UFO began to hover overhead, and before the village’s teacher, Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), discovered that the town no longer appears on any maps. The loss of Bacurau’s matriarch Carmelita, sent off to the next life in a grand ceremony in the first act, is another setback for the town. The only good news is that the UFO isn’t a UFO, which only qualifies as “good news” because Bacurau’s so short on any. The bad news is that it’s a drone controlled by a squad of ruthless hunters who consider human prey the greatest game. They’re in Brazil for sport, and they’ve set the people of Bacurau in their sights.
If Filho and Dornelles chose, they could probably have structured Bacurau around a 70- or 80-minute running time, indulged in some siege-film tropes, splashed blood on the walls, and called it a day. But the reason the movie works so well is that they’re careful to take their time. They build a specific world, framed in historical, political, and socioeconomic regional particulars. Watching the film as an outsider to Brazil’s past and present feels like watching a sharply crafted, wickedly vengeful lecture on, say, 1896’s War of Canudos, but with an infinitely more satisfying outcome.
Filho and Dornelles fully embrace the virtue of taking time to tell a story properly. Portents pile up, evidence of creeping peril mounts, and yet they make time for their audience to get acquainted with their characters. Apart from Plinio, there’s Teresa (Bárbara Colen), returning home for the funeral to bid her grandmother Carmelita farewell; Domingas (Sonia Braga), the perpetually blotto village doctor, who arrives to the funeral sloshed and causes a scene; ex-gangster Pacote (Thomas Aquino), once a trigger man, always a trigger man, but with a good heart; and Black Jr. (DJ Urso), blaring news items over his speaker system when he isn’t entertaining the populace with YouTube videos in the town’s center.
Bacurau is a far-flung, isolated place, but the film’s aesthetics emphasize the idyllic side of the trade-off. This is a beautiful land, and the people who live there know how to look after their own. When bodies begin piling up (including children, which again puts the picture in Assault on Precinct 13’s territory), those bodies matter. Filho and Dornelles don’t write their doomed characters as faceless. They want viewers to remember the victims, regardless of how much or how little screen time they’re given, because everyone in this film matters. When the heavies get their needed comeuppance, the effect is monumental, not just as an emergency release for the high tension Filho and Dornelles have steadily built up over Bacurau’s narrative, but as commentary on resistance.
Sometimes, it’s enough to boo and jeer unwanted interlopers out of town. Here, it isn’t. The hunters, led by Michael (Udo Kier, having a ball), have their violence met with violence twice as brutal, which feels like a prototypically American notion, at least according to just about every American Western ever made. The explosive fury of Bacurau’s slow-burn climax is a gratifying payoff to the film’s suspense, but without the deliberate measures taken to make the rest of the story count, it’d ring hollow. Filho and Dornelles’ repertoire of techniques, from split diopters to crane shots to horizontal wipes (arguably the most fitting flourish they could make, given Bacurau’s cartographic scrubbing) show off the depth of their filmmaking range. But their love for Carpenter, and their approach to turning that love into cinema unique to them, makes Bacurau shine.
Bacurau opens in New York on March 6, with a nationwide rollout to follow.