Having wowed world-cinema audiences with Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius, Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho (here co-directing with his producer Juliano Dornelles) takes a surprise turn with Bacurau, a film leaning into genre cinema to deliver a somewhat saggy, violent thriller indebted to the likes of A Fistful Of Dollars, Mad Max, and Hostel.
Set in the Brazilian outback a few years from now, Bacurau begins as Teresa (Barbara Colen) returns to the titular hometown for her grandmother’s funeral. It’s a tumbledown settlement, deprived of water because of a dam dispute between smarmy mayor Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima) and the authorities. Teresa rides into town in the water tanker that keeps the locals from perishing, and brings with her medicines for the local doctor, Domingas (Sonia Braga, she of Aquarius’ towering central performance).
Things are clearly not right. On the road outside Bacarau, several coffins litter the way, while the town has suddenly vanished off Google Maps and all phone signals have died. Soon the residents will flatline too, for it transpires that a group of weapon-wielding American tourists led by a crazed German (Udo Kier, naturally) are about to wade into town on a big-money safari in which humans are the unwitting prey.
It sounds like a riot and parts of it are, though Mendonça and Filho are perhaps too keen to litter in allusions, with a touch of psychotropic bedlam here, a dash of synthesiser there, and parched, sweat-stained, mad-eyed locals here, there and everywhere, suggesting, respectively, the movies of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Carpenter, and Ted Kotcheff’s intensely disturbing Wake in Fright. The idea of humans as the ultimate game, meanwhile, is a goodie but an oldie, stretching back to 1932’s The Most Dangerous Game and taking in, to name just a few, The Tenth Victim, Turkey Shoot, Surviving The Game, The Running Man and Hard Target. There’s also the presence of a drone that looks like a flying saucer to add a little sci-fi weirdness to the heady mix.
And yet Bacarau often occupies an odd middle ground between action-thriller and study of an impoverished, eccentric community. It doesn’t quite succeed as either, with the oddball locals too colourful to be taken entirely seriously, and the set-pieces delivering plenty of booming gunshots and impactful violence, but lacking anything like the movement and muscularity of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai – yet another key influence. There’s also a lack of tension, which is odd given just how controlled and ominous Neighbouring Sounds is, with its sound design alone making the skin prickle.
There’s plenty here to admire – we haven’t even mentioned the strident satire that puts Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in the crosshairs – but Bacurau feels like a diversion in a directorial career destined for greatness.
For more Cannes 2019 coverage, read our report from John Carpenter's onstage Q&A.