By Jay Fox

Brooklyn, NY, USA


In order for your nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. – Stokely Carmichael


Given the madness that is 2020—whether it’s the American presidential election, the pandemic, the stress of quarantine, the wildfires, or whatever crises have more recently sprung up—there is a certain comfort in formulaic movies. The twists and turns of the plots are like well-worn paths that anyone familiar with the terrain can anticipate well in advance. You know the characters’ lanes as well as they do, and you’re not upset by the fact that most of these people are one-dimensional constructs that carry the plot from one page to the next. When a male character shows up in a Hawaiian shirt in a horror film, it indicates that he’s there to party, and that he will ultimately be killed by whatever monster he’s too drunk and oblivious to notice lurking in the shadows. There’s a comfort in knowing that he won’t shift gears abruptly and suddenly find himself taking part in an armed, accelerationalist plot to ultimately destroy the global order via a second American Civil War that he and his extremist friends call The Boogaloo.


The typical American Western, for example, usually follows a straightforward formula: There is an innocent and bucolic town that follows a traditional way of life. Bad people try to corrupt that way of life, typically through violence. A reluctant hero emerges when pushed too far. He rids the town of the bad guys, oftentimes by relying on some kind of pastoral wiles that the outsiders wouldn’t know about because they either don’t know the specifics of the town or because of some other form of “otherness.” In some variants, the reluctant hero is an outsider at the beginning of the story, gradually becomes an accepted part of the community as the story progresses, and then is heralded as the leader of the town by the end. In others, the reluctant hero begins as a member of the invading group of bandits or army, but then switches sides due to a love interest or a revelation.


There have been thousands of iterations of these formulas, and it has been so successful largely because it plays to certain American mythologies that evoke potent meanings in audiences throughout the country: the rugged individual, the small town, the Old West, and so on. Additionally, these films play to the kind of civic virtues of the conservative yeomen who celebrates hard work, honesty, modesty, and violence only as a means of defense (as perhaps exemplified best by the legend of Livy’s Cincinnatus). The bad guys, conversely, tend to embrace these virtues’ opposites. They are lazy, deceitful, ostentatious, use violence as a means of acquisition, and are power hungry.


One typically doesn’t watch a Western with the expectation that there will be particularly groundbreaking social commentary or some kind of bizarre plot twist. You watch these kinds of movies because you understand the characters’ archetypes or to see good triumph over evil. Occasionally, you may decide to watch one because it may get some novel use out of the old tropes.

BACURAU Movie Poster

This is what I expected when I decided to watch the 2019 film Bacurau. I knew it was a Brazilian adaptation of the West genre that also incorporates elements of ultraviolent gore, sci-fi, and plenty of political commentary, but that was it.


Written and directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelle, the film is set in a remote part of the Brazilian countryside sometime in the future and opens with Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returning home to the town of Bacurau for her grandmother’s funeral. She is being given a ride by man who drives the water truck, which has become a necessity since the water supply to the town has been cut off by the corrupt Mayor (Thardelly Lima) ostensibly until the townsfolk give up the freedom fighter Lunga (Silvero Pereira). Teresa arrives in the town and goes to a funeral to which the entire town has turned out. Clearly, her grandmother was an extremely important figure, though it is unclear why. It is also unclear why the town doctor, Domingas (Sônia Braga), drunkenly shows up to the service and tries to interrupt it. In the morning, we’re introduced to Pacote (Thomas Aquino) with whom Teresa more than likely had a relationship in the past.


The following morning, the Mayor comes to the town, but his entourage is spotted well before his arrival. What he finds are stress that have been deserted. He tells those who come out that they can vote with a “reader device.” Nothing. He leaves them food, medicine, and books, which are unloaded onto the dusty streets from the back of a dump truck. The only people in eyesight are those who are working in the nearby brothel. The Mayor takes one of the working women into his car, but is met by Dr. Domingas, who warns him not to harm the woman. “I saw her come into this world,” Domingas says. “I liked her mother very much. If she comes back hurt, I’ll feed your cock to the hens.”


So, what are you thinking at this point? I know what I was. To me, Teresa was the protagonist and Pacote was going to be the love interest. Domingas was going to turn out to be a good person who believes that she is kind of untouchable. She knows something terrible about the fallen matriarch, but she can’t say. Either Domingas or Pacote would ultimately sacrifice themselves for Teresa and the greater cause. The Mayor, meanwhile, would be revealed to be just a puppet that is part of a corrupt power apparatus that wants domination over the town because it possesses a treasure few know about. The townspeople, meanwhile, would refuse to comply, band together, and fight!


It was almost as though I had finished writing the plot for the directors. Following Domingas’ threat to the Mayor, I was expecting the next scene did to either focus on the backstory about the matriarch and Domingas, show the power and wealth of whoever was pulling the Mayor’s strings, or contain an expository exchange between Teresa and Pacote that would fill in some blanks about Lunga, reveal Pacote’s role in the resistance, and build upon their romantic chemistry.


You can understand my surprise, then, when the next scene was just a man driving his motorbike down a dirt road at dusk being chased by a baby flying saucer.



Following the UFO chase scene, the townsfolk meet to equally divide what the Mayor dropped off. Soon after, the town then disappears from internet maps, the water truck arrives in town filled with inexplicable bullet holes, and horses from a nearby farm begin running wild through the streets because the owners of the farm have all been brutally murdered. As all of this is happening, two strangers on dirt bikes dressed liked its 1992 show up and covertly plant some device in the general store. They then leave, kill some of the people who have attempted to retrieve the horses, and then return to a base occupied by Americans and Europeans while being shadowed by what turns out to be a UFO-shaped drone.

Jay Fox

Yes, this is all quite strange. Even stranger, it turns out these people (who I will call “the aggressors”) have come to Brazil to hunt the townspeople for sport. What they don’t anticipate is that the people of the Bacurau will go down without a fight.


Rather than describing the rest of the film, I think it’s important to stop here should anyone want to see it for themselves. It is wildly entertaining and, as indicated above, it does not follow what many of us would inadvertently call normal. This is part of the reason why the film is boldly anti-colonial. Anti-colonialism is far more than the act of fighting back with guns; it is also about questioning and making one reconsider what is “normal” as defined by power. In this case, the American film industry has a genre called a Western and there are certain does and don’ts. I’ve internalized them. To me, they are normal. Bacurau upends those norms and in so doing offers a glimpse of something unique.


What it does not do is offer much in terms of an explanation as to why the aggressors have shown up. Is it because the town is sitting under a vein of gold? There is no indication that that is true. Is it because it holds the key to some mystical power or secret? That seems unlikely, as well. In fact, assuming that there must be a clear and material explanation is a way to explain the evil, to couch it in the familiar language of conquest and exploitation, thereby making it comprehendible even if deeply abhorrent and unethical. It seems likely that such questions sidestep the more important line of inquiry the directors hope to explore.


When the question of “Why are you doing this?” is finally posed explicitly to one of the aggressors (Kate (Alli Willow)), no motive is revealed. She can only beg for mercy and repeatedly respond, “I don’t know,” as she lay wounded after having been shot by one of the townspeople who seconds before she had hoped to ambush and kill. This is not a refusal to reveal a motive from a hardened mercenary who refuses to crack under interrogation, nor is it someone who is playing dumb. There is no grand agenda, no justifiable motivation. The question of “Why are you doing this?” ceases to insinuate that the aggressors’ actions are immoral, and instead suggests a kind of targeted indifference. The question becomes, “What makes it so easy for you to dehumanize us?”


However, again, there is no satisfying answer. There is no hidden hatred, no clear reason behind the xenophobia, nothing to be gained by calling it racism. To me, the pathology that Kate conveys in that moment is more of a confession that she doesn’t understand her own culture. She doesn’t understand how it can normalize an ethos of antisocial and unempathetic behavior. She doesn’t understand how casual violence, seen from a different perspective, is indistinguishable from sadism. For this reason, she and the rest of the aggressors (except Michael (Udo Kier) and Joshua (Brian Townes)) are not sociopathic monsters. They are not even like the villains from Pynchon’s catalog (particularly Captain Blicero). They just commit casual acts of violence to people who they believe do not matter without really thinking about it.


Seen this way, Bacurau is less of a Western and more of a monster film. The monsters, however, are not predators but zombies. As another twist, rather than a caricature of the mob descending en masse upon civilization, Bacurau as a zombie film presents caricatures of the Northern elite whose boredom with their first world lives have led them into the global South to play mercenary and attempt to eradicate a town.


Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.