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Film Reviews: The Settlers & Argylle

Arts Review2024-2-2By: Marc Glassman

 

You Can’t take over the World

The Settlers & Argylle

By Marc Glassman

 

The Settlers (Los Colonos)

Felipe Galvez, dir. & co-script w/Antonia Giradi & Mariano Llinas

Featuring: Camilo Arancibia (Segundo), Benjamin Westfall (Bill), Mark Stanley (Alexander MacLennan), Alfredo Castro (José Menendez), Mishell Guana (Kiepja), Sam Spruell (Colonel Martin), Marcelo Alonso (Vicuna)

 

A pictorially arresting revisionist Western, The Settlers is a brilliant directorial debut, which garnered the prestigious FIPRESCI (best first film) Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Felipe Galvez. It’s rare for a first feature to be chosen as a country’s Academy Award entry for best foreign language film but that’s what happened to The Settlers, quite a kudo considering that Chile has recently produced such internationally recognized work as Pablo Larrain’s No and Sebastian Lelio’s Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman. In a country that has famously produced such widely acclaimed auteurs as the avant-gardist Raul Ruiz (Time Regained) and documentarian Patricio Guzman (The Battle of Chile trilogy), Galvez is poised to claim a place in the pantheon of Chilean filmmakers with the success of The Settlers (Los colonos)

The Settlers is placed during the beginning of the 20th century, when Chile and Argentina were creating huge ranches in the vast southerly region of Tierra del Fuego, which had resisted settlement for centuries. Inevitably, the white settlers of the two countries wanted to exploit every territory for the raising of wildlife and growing of crops. When gold and other precious minerals was discovered in the late 19th century, the Chileans and Argentines rapaciously took over the previously wild region, taking over the land and eliminating the native people there, particularly the Selk’nam, who went from a population of 4,000 in 1800 to total extinction before the end of the 20th century. Chilean audiences will have known the background of The Settlers and it’s only fair that North American moviegoers appreciate the context of the film.

The narrative of The Settlers is constructed in the classic pattern set by the famous Hollywood Westerns of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. Three very different men—the former Scottish imperial soldier Alexander MacLennan, a Texas cowboy named Bill and Segundo, a Mestizo (half breed Indigenous and Spanish) rural worker—are sent on a mission to map the land owned by wealthy Chilean José Menendez. The vast and gorgeous landscape makes an astonishing contrast with the mood of the men, which is vicious and uncompromising. In American Westerns, the trio would become fierce companions, friends for life, as they battled the elements and hostile forces, either evil ranchers or angry Indigenous people—what was then called “Indian Tribes.” But Galvez offers a stark contrast: the three men are working for the evil rancher—and he is genuinely a bad man—while the Indigenous don’t appear to be threatening at all. The three don’t become friends; if anything, they despise each other more as their journey continues and events become more and more vicious.                                                                                                                               

What we see in The Settlers is based on real events involving the main historical characters Alexander MacLennan and José Menendez. MacLennan’s mission wasn’t just to map the vast terrain conquered by the Chilean—it was to eliminate the previous dwellers in the region, the original people, the Selk’nam. In a brilliant and immensely disturbing scene, the three enter a Native encampment at dawn and kill all the men. Galvez stages the brutal event during a misty morning, gorgeously envisioned as if it was a fairy tale. Though the film is structured in chapters, there are two chronological parts, the first of which ends with a truly scary sequence where we see how terrifying a British imperialist can be.

Galvez shifts his scenario forward several years after Menendez’s awful destruction of the Selk’nam people has roused the Chilean government in Santiago to investigate. Senor Vicuna, from the supposedly civilized people of the capital city, questions Menendez’s methodology and finds Segundo, still alive and now free to pursue a quiet existence by the ocean with his wife. But what does Vicuna do?  He captures Segundo and his partner on film—for the record—and does nothing consequential. The awful truth only emerges a century later with The Settlers. 

Galvez’s film is so brilliantly shot and resolute in its construction that it becomes difficult to criticize. But there are flaws, mainly in the depiction of the main characters. The three men are one-dimensional, with obvious stereotypes—the British colonialist, the cowboy, the dramatically torn half-Indigenous person—never rising above their narrative construction. The film is so stark that you long for humour—even black comedy—to take place but it never does. The film has a political stance to maintain, and it does so at the expense of its artistry.

But you can’t help but be moved by The Settlers. It’s an important film and a great launch for Felipe Galvez’s directorial career. 

 

Argylle

Matthew Vaughn, director

Jason Fuchs, script

Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (Elly Conway), Sam Rockwell (Aiden), Bryan Cranston (Ritter), Catherine O’Hara (Ruth), Henry Cavill (Aubrey Argylle), Dua Lipa (LaGrange), Ariana DeBose (Keira), Samuel L. Jackson (Alfred Solomon), John Cena (Wyatt)

 

Matthew Vaughn’s latest thriller barely features Argylle, the spy who gives the film his name and, in fact, you’ll see only glimpses of Henry Cavill, the titular hero, throughout the movie. The real stars are surprisingly Bryce Dallas Howard as Elly Conway, the successful but neurotic writer of the Argylle best-selling novels and Sam Rockwell, playing an aging but all too real spy named Aiden. Adding immeasurably to the brilliant but hardly youthful cast is Catherine O’Hara, who is sharp and witty playing Elly’s mother.  Also featuring prominently are two of O’Hara’s contemporaries, Samuel L. Jackson and Bryan Cranston, veteran scene stealers, as rival heads of spy networks, one, the Division, which is mysteriously evil while the other—where Rockwell works—is apparently representing the good guys. 

Working with a showy hyperactive script by Jason Fuchs, Vaughn has created a meta-film about writing an espionage chiller, which just happens to have real-life consequences. Rockwell’s Aiden shows up to protect Elly from the Division, who are out to find the “Masterkey,” which she has promised to reveal in her next Argylle book. The trouble is that the “key” has truly gone missing, and the Division will do anything to get it. A chase across London and France ensues, with fun being extracted through the odd couple chemistry between the timid, repressed Elly and the overly confident Aiden. 

Not content with just that premise, Fuchs and Vaughn flip the scenario half way through the film, revealing that Elly is actually a brilliant spy named Rachel who is suffering from amnesia and has been brainwashed by the Division to think that she’s a shy reclusive writer. The Argylle stories are, in fact, her repressed memories of bygone espionage days made heroic though her creation of an ultra-suave masculine spy. If that isn’t enough of a switch, Elly finds out that Rachel and Aiden were lovers before her bizarre accident.

Much more takes place—way too much for one film and one review—including more role reversals and lots of murder and mayhem. Some scenes work while others are merely over-the-top. There’s an astonishing sequence involving coloured smoke, dancing and guns that has to be seen to be believed. And a not bad one with skating, oil and knives, which could have been better than it is. Suffice it to say that Vaughn has done his best to follow up his Kingsman franchise with another appealing series.

Does it work? Not really. Although the acting is fine, you don’t care about the characters—not even Bryce Dallas Howard’s Elly/Rachel, who undergoes such a total change that it’s hard to fathom what parts represent her true self. She’s funny and identifiable as Elly but how much of that person is in Rachel? Far more difficult to comprehend is Rockwelll’s Aiden who has to move from being a comic figure into a lover as the film progresses; even for him, it’s too difficult a journey to manage. The only one who does pull off a dual identity is O’Hara, but she isn’t in enough scenes to make that much of a difference.

Far more difficult to contend with is the faltering tone in the film. The movie switches genres from comedy to action to romance repeatedly–and that can be great when it’s done properly. But the director has to signal where the film is going stylistically especially when such a tricky meta-structure is in place. That doesn’t happen in Argylle, which feels haphazard rather than intricate despite its complex scenario. Too often Argylle feels like a stew where the chef has decided to throw in anything spicy just to make it feel different. You don’t know what you’re tasting is the best possible recipe—and neither does the cook. 

There’s much to like in Argylle but I suspect that this isn’t going to turn into a franchise.

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