Bacurau review – weird western is a fascinating mess

Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho delivers a bold but frustrating genre film about a remote town fighting for its survival

Somewhere in a remote region of Brazil, in a place where few outsiders dare to venture, a young woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns home to attend the funeral of her grandmother. Along the way, she passes coffins, scattered in the road. Quickly she learns of the strange events that have been plaguing the community in recent months. The water has been cut off, and why is the town no longer appearing on the map? Meanwhile, high in the sky, a UFO hovers. Welcome to Bacurau.

It’s tough not to admire a film that shows so little concern for narrative convention, genre, or logic, even when said film doesn’t quite pull it off. Bacurau, the latest picture from renowned Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, co-writing and directing alongside Juliano Dornelles, is very much its own thing, for better or worse, by turns frustrating and exhilarating. As an uncompromising vision you can’t fault it; whether it’s worth the time it takes to sit through (132 minutes, if you’re wondering) is another matter entirely.

Split into two unevenly distinct halves, Bacurau first hones in on the residents of this backwater town, defined by their community spirit and general dismay for corrupt authorities. We get to know the inhabitants, from hardened doctor Domingas (Sônia Braga), to Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a born leader who has a romantic history with Teresa. And whilst most films tend to present an idea of what they’re about early on, allowing you to find your way into the story, more than an hour into Bacurau you’re still likely to be wondering what exactly it is you’re watching, or where it’s going.

Many reviews have been vigilante in concealing the film’s late-stage “secrets,” which I don’t think are quite as outlandish or unexpected as many critics have suggested. Let’s just say that it soon becomes apparent that there is a bloody kind of game afoot – one not so different from Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which humans are hunted for sport. The film’s second half – which introduces Udo Kier as a sadistic hunter – is unashamedly spun from the films of John Carpenter (glimpse his Portuguese name equivalent plastered on a sign), though I’d argue nothing here gets close to the brilliance of his Assault on Precinct 13.

Bacurau clearly has a lot to say, but whether it does a good job of saying those things will likely depend on how you take to its “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. With its sights set on themes of colonialism and political corruption, this is clearly a movie about Brazil, past and present, and also about the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. But what it’s saying on a more specific level isn’t made particularly clear or apparent to viewers outside of this ecosystem, and for many there will be a sense of a film going a bit over your head. A case of lost in translation, perhaps?

For the politically unfamiliar (AKA western audiences), the real thrill of Bacurau can be found in its constant shifting of tones and genres, the way it unravels as though unafraid to throw out the rulebook. So we get a disorientating but beautifully shot film that’s part political drama, part horror, and a whole lotta western. At times it feels like a documentary, or even a telenovela. Later, a schlocky B-movie. And there are sci-fi elements, too, suggesting this is a story of the not-too-distant future.

The hectic mishmash of ideas is not entirely satisfying, and the bloody denouement doesn’t quite redeem an admittedly slow build-up. There’s a fine line between messy and inspired; Bacurau falls somewhere in-between. Yet I sense that just like the town of the title, this is a film that will refuse to be scrubbed from the map. Cult fandom awaits.

Find showtimes nearby

More Reviews...

The Lawyer review – unique and hyper-focused character study

This landmark drama from Lithuanian filmmaker Romas Zabarauskas tells of a privileged gay man’s emotional reckoning

The Whalebone Box review – disorienting docudrama defies description

This experimental work from filmmaker Andrew Köttin chronicles a strange journey to return a mythical object to its place of origin

Standing Up, Falling Down review – a plane movie you can watch at home

Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal star as a failed comedian and a dermatologist who strike up in a friendship in this affable comedy

Lady and the Tramp review – charming and harmless update of a classic

Charlie Bean’s live-action remake might not be revolutionary, but there’s enough music and romance to make it shine


Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

From an affable Billy Crystal comedy to a Meghan Markle-narrated elephant doc, here are our top picks for streaming and renting...

7 Latest Studio Ghibli Films on Netflix, Ranked

As the streaming giant adds the final batch of Studio Ghibli features to its platform, we suggest which ones to prioritise in your queue

My Favourite Film Ending: Little Women

In the first of a new series, our writers sing the praises of their favourite film endings. This week, Ella Kemp celebrates the subversive climax of Greta Gerwig's Little Women

Seven Days of Streaming: The Enigmatic Roles of Robert Pattinson

From the anxious Good Time to the cosmic High Life, here's how to curate your own Robert Pattinson season at home in seven key films