“If You Go, Go in Peace.” This is the town motto of Bacurau, a small hamlet in central Brazil that’s home to a modest population of rural residents. It’s a small place, but it’s got a lot. There’s the museum, a tourist attraction (sort of) which sheds light on the village’s storied history: A rebellion was once stopped here, possibly with the same antique guns that hang on its walls. There’s a library — one of the best around, we’re told — and a whorehouse. It’s home to a doctor (the legendary Sonia Braga), a school teacher, a troubadour, a D.J. that doubles as a town crier, several farmers, and its own outlaw gang, led by a mysterious figure named Lunga (Silvero Pereira). He and his cohorts have gone underground, however; only his former triggerman, who now goes by the name Acácio (Thomas Aquino), is around. It has a mayor, an oily suck-up named Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima) who couldn’t be more corrupt. It had a beloved matriarchal figure who just passed away, which is why Teresa (Bárbara Colen) has returned from the big city, in order to attend her grandmother’s funeral.
Most of all, Bacurau has a community. They bicker, and talk trash, and occasionally go on public drunken rants. They’re aren’t perfect. But they look out for each other.
Here’s what Bacurau doesn’t have: access to the local river, since Tony Junior cut a deal with developers and dammed it up. (Lunga and his gang tried to destroy it, hence his status as Public Enemy No. 1.) A presence on a satellite map; curiously, the town isn’t showing up when the teacher and his students tries to find it on the computer. A way to leave the region, since the highways have unexpectedly been blocked for a few days. After two tourists stop by on motorbikes, the town also suddenly doesn’t have cell reception. In fact, a lot of strange things have been happening lately. What was up with all those coffins Teresa saw the other day, the ones dumped on the road after a car accident? Why did the truck that delivers them water on the down low show up with bullet holes? And where did that flying saucer-like drone that’s been buzzing around come from?
There are so many sly, savvy moves that Brazilian filmmakers Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho make as they set up their Western/horror/white-hot cri de coeur, but their smartest decision may be the fact that they let you get to know the good, bad and ugly people of Bacurau before revealing exactly what’s going on. You gradually have a sense of how they interact, how they laugh and grieve with each other, how they’ve adapted to a shitty situation and how they come together to face a common enemy. When Tony Junior shows up to campaign for re-election and, oddly enough, gift them with pharmaceuticals that have a tendency to dull one wits, everyone ducks into their houses and yells obscenities at him. He can’t see where the various protests are coming from — it’s as if the politician is being verbally assaulted by the town itself. (What comes next may constitute a big spoiler in the eyes of some readers, so should you want to go in cold, leave now and we’ll talk once you’ve seen the movie.)
Which is ironic, given that Bacurau is literally about to be under attack. The reason behind all of these unusual, unexplained occurrences and attempts at erasure involves a group of rich, aristocratic Westerners who’ve paid big money to hunt the residents for sport. (There are also two Brazilians, but they’re from the hoity-toity southern part of the country; a passing remark about “local contractors” paid to set the town up suggests an economy of complicity.) This ragtag bunch of ugly Americans and Aussies are led by an icy blue-eyed German — and anyone familiar with the immutable laws of genre filmmaking knows that the minute actor Udo Kier shows up, some serious shit is about to go down. The thing is, the alleged hicks from the sticks that this tourist group is itching to shoot are beginning to catch on to the most dangerous game being played. And they have a few tricks, and some firearms, of their own.
Filho was the writer-director responsible for the 2016 movie Aquarius, which tackled urban gentrification and corporate colonialism with equal parts eloquence and urgency; Dornelles was the production designer on the film. Taking on issues of class warfare is nothing new to them, but the duo have outdone themselves here with this violent, neo-exploitation slant on the ways the rich get richer and the poor get the picture. You do not need to be well-versed in Brazil’s particulars regarding civil unrest, historical tensions and economic strife to get where Bacurau is coming from — few things are as universal as gory headshots, bloody ambushes and cathartic revenge scenarios.
And though the cine-literate are likely to cheer when the film not only pays homage to an infamous scene in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) but also includes the director’s own musical composition on the soundtrack (“Night”), you do not have to be a grindhouse scholar to recognize the way the Filho and Dornelles are using a termite-art vocabulary to attack a bigger-picture sense of injustice. There are some breathtakingly gorgeous images the movie throws at you — the townsfolk silently waving white handkerchiefs during a funeral — among the few giddily grotesque visuals that you can’t shake. (Pedro Sotero’s cinematography is as stunning as a painting and as psychotropic as the drugs the villagers take before the finale.) But the duo have crafted a serrated-edged satire that has serious fangs and talons, sharpened to fine points and dripping with the plasma of those who view everything in terms of entitlements and dollar signs. Just because you think you’re a predator doesn’t mean you can’t become prey. Everyone eventually fights back, especially the oppressed. Get angry. Happy hunting.