I love thrillers. In books, movies, and anecdotes shared over dinner, what I love best are stories about criminals and backstabbers, lies and jealousy, ghosts and uncanny coincidences—all the twisted logics of the human condition. I have many friends who prefer their entertainment to relax; I like mine to thrill. I want to look at the frightening parts of life from the safe vantage of a good story.
At the same time, I find many of the familiar tropes of thrillers grating. Police protagonists, for example—especially those who "bend the rules" in relentless pursuit of the "bad guys"—look more and more like destructive propaganda. Stories that hinge on violence against women feel similarly insidious. I don't necessarily want a righteous political message to neatly tie up everything I read and watch. It's just that I'm tired of lazy, regressive tropes giving sneaky justification to the rampant unfairness we see in the news every day.
Which is why I can't stop talking about the film Bacurau. Winner of last year's Cannes Jury Prize, the movie bends and stretches the tropes of my favorite genres in exhilarating ways.
The film takes place in a subtly-near future; "Bacurau" is also the name of the fictional rural village that is the story's main character. A government-funded dam has cut off the town's water supply in service of elsewhere profits. The residents resist the water theft with dignity and intelligence; they truck in fresh water, smuggle in their own medicine, share food, and throw away the sedatives given as "charity" from a local politician. Co-Director Kleber Mendonça Filho has described Bacurau as one of the world's "helping communities," where people have learned "to live relatively well even on the margins of public power."
In addition to self-sufficiency, the town is also capable of violent resistance. One of their near-mythic members, a queer revolutionary figure, has gone into hiding after attacking the dam. Another is famous for the surveillance videos on YouTube of his gunmanship. The director based the village on Brazil's quilombos, which were historically settled by people who escaped enslavement; there is a museum in the center of Bacurau that quietly celebrates this history, including a display of antique guns—that still work.
Watching any thriller brings me two essential kinds of pleasure. The first is akin to the pleasure of eating crème brûlée; it comes from appreciating and enjoying the flawless execution of a classic form. The second comes from innovation. I love watching the classic form inverted, expectations set up and then thwarted, tropes reinvented to new ends. It's less of a crème brûlée than a peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich.
The magic of Bacurau is that it delivers both of these pleasures. The movie aligns most closely with the structure of a western—the story of a remote town under siege from foreigners. Yet there is no rugged individualist hero of the story; the entire town is the protagonist, with different people sharing screen time the way they share food. There's horror, with nods to the apocalyptic visions of John Carpenter and George Miller, and an extended sequence that, Predator-like, turns the tables on a group of invaders. There's also a good bit of exploitation film, brilliant in a film that is essentially a commentary on exploitation. The directors masterfully execute tension and suspense and then twist into something totally unexpected. And in doing so, they offer a path through genre that I believe is important for all storytellers in our current era.
In The Atrocity Exhibition, JG Ballard writes about the homogenizing influence of Disney on museums as well as individual people in the twentieth century, saying that both are packaged to be easily understandable and attractive. "Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonize past and future," Ballard writes, complaining about the way tropes become commercial signifiers.
But something different is happening now, and not only in Bacurau. For the forthcoming horror Antebellum, for example, co-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz sought out the camera lenses used on Gone With the Wind because, Bush says, "We need to correct the record with the same weapon that was used to misinform and mislead."
Genre tropes are a kind of lens, too. As the horrors of our exploitive and racist economic systems are bursting daily in the news, I'm grateful for storytellers putting these old lenses to new use. Instead of recolonizing past and future, they're starting to decolonize. It's only a movie, but I'm glad it's a start.
True Story by Kate Reed Petty (Quercus Publishing) Out Now
After a college party, two boys drive a girl home: drunk and passed out in the back seat.Rumours spread about what they did to her, but later they'll tell the police a different version of events. Alice will never remember what truly happened. Her fracture runs deep, hidden beneath cleverness and wry humour. Nick - a sensitive, misguided boy who stood by - will never forget. That's just the beginning of this extraordinary journey into memory, fear and self-portrayal. Through university applications, a terrifying abusive relationship, a fateful reckoning with addiction and a final mind-bending twist, Alice and Nick will take on different roles to each other - some real, some invented - until finally, brought face to face once again, the secret of that night is revealed.