Unless you count the desert-set “Asteroid City” or “Killers of the Flower Moon” as westerns, the best example of that genre at Cannes this year is “The Settlers,” a debut feature from the Chilean director Felipe Gálvez that was shown in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. It dramatizes an episode from Chilean history in the first decade of the 20th century.
In a borderline-lawless area of Tierra del Fuego (the film kicks off with a man being shot for losing an arm, because without it he’s useless to work), Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Scot and former soldier in the British army, is asked by his employer, the landowner and sheep baron José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), to cut a route to the Atlantic for the sheep. MacLennan takes along a mestizo, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), whom he views as his most capable possible backup, and, at Menéndez’s insistence, an American named Bill (Benjamín Wesfall), who doesn’t trust Segundo because Segundo is biracial. “You never know who they’re going to shoot,” Bill complains—and this is a mission with frankly genocidal aims toward the Indigenous population.
The early scenes—when it’s just three men and the elements, trying to figure out each other’s loyalties—have the feel of a Budd Boetticher picture. But “The Settlers” quickly turns weirder and more violent. There’s a massacre in the mist (after which MacLennan demands that Segundo rape a woman to prove his loyalty), an encounter with a British colonel (Sam Spruell), and finally an epilogue that addresses, in a hauntingly oblique way, another massacre that MacLennan is said to have perpetrated. “The Settlers” feels at once classical and original. It’s a real discovery in a festival whose loyalties so often run to brand-name auteurs.