The Settlers (2023) | Review

Felipe Gálvez Haberle delivers a bleak portrait of three men journeying across a frontier marred with brutal masculinity and racial genocide.

the settlers poster
Source: The Movie Database

Synopsis: Three men are tasked with marking the territory of José Menéndez's vast estate and finding a path for a cattle drive through Patagonia to the Atlantic Ocean.

Director: Felipe Gálvez Haberle
Cast: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Alfredo Castro, Benjamín Westfall

Three men ride out into the frontier and what do they seek? Opportunity? Peace? Over and over, The Settlers answers: brutality. And it makes for an ugly picture, though not ill-made one.

The story starts on quite solid ground. A Brit, an American, and a Chilean ride out together to establish the boundaries of José Menéndez's territory. And if they have the opportunity to engage in cultural genocide and kill a few Selk'nam, then they'll earn some extra cash too.

Camilo Arancibia is meek and doe-eyed as Segundo, the young Chilean trusted by Alexander MacLennan (Stanley, Brit) but derided by Bill (Westfall, American). He seems primed to be the middle ground between two conflicting ways to live on the frontier as MacLennan and Bill debate tracking techniques and foraging plans. A score chock full of booming drums gives events an exciting, promising pace.

The three then bump into an Argentine platoon and waves of masculine violence start to break. Well-spirited shooting contests and boxing matches are the start of a spiral that brings senseless murder and rape. On occasion this had my mind bogged down in misery with only the film's insertion of new short-term characters to jar me back to life. Sam Spruell delivers a Hannibal Lecter-lite performance as Colonel Martin, who has fallen from grace and ended up a mercenary at the ends of the earth. While his time in the film is comparatively brief, he delivers a scene of spot-on tension and bottled rage – a refreshing burst of tension while the rest of the film is pulling you into the depths.

screencap from the settlers
Source: The Movie Database

The frontier of The Settlers isn't a void to be filled with ambition, civilisation, justice, or even a crude form of revenge. It's an intolerable pit, which the film attempts to scrutinise in an expected turn. Time leaps forward and new characters start to dig through the ugly past of Alexander MacLennan. It's a welcome wrapper for the rest of the film to sit in, although it could have made a much more interesting conversation if it was introduced much earlier to fully bookend the story.

While you might always like what you see, you'll like how it's presented. The biggest praise goes to Simone D'Arcangelo's cinematography which captures both the scenery and the film's characters beautifully. Saturated colours ensure uniforms stand out from landscapes, and one particular sequence has our main trio emerging from a mist in a ghoulish fashion. When the light is low, things can be a little too difficult to see, but scenes with setting suns and firelight are simply excellent.

The Settlers is a heavy revision of the Western, particularly from a multicultural standpoint. It's great to see a story presenting just how much of a mixed pot the frontier became, albeit at the expense of those who already lived there. What misgivings I have about the film are still below its technical merits and I look forward to what Felipe Gálvez Haberle brings in his next feature film.