Reviewed today: The Bikeriders, The Settlers.
12.10pm: The Bikeriders [trailer]
Without making too much of a fuss about it, Jeff Nichols has been racking up an interesting catalogue of movies over the years. Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, Loving – there’s not much in common between them, other than human stories and excellent acting. It’s surprising we haven’t caught one of his films at the LFF before now, but here we are. Watch out for something else surprising after the next paragraph.
The Bikeriders is inspired by a book by photographer Danny Lyon, documenting in pictures and interviews the time that he spent hanging out with a Chicago biker gang. Lyon's depicted in the film, played by Mike Faist, but the key focus here is on one of his interviewees. We see him talking to Kathy (Jodie Comer) in 1963, as she tells the story of how she accidentally found herself in a biker bar chatting to Benny (Austin Butler). He’s one of the members of the Chicago Outlaws, more of a club than a gang, led by Johnny (Tom Hardy). As she starts spending more time with Benny, she gets a unique insider's perspective on how the Outlaws operate. By the time Lyon returns for a second interview a decade later, the Outlaws have changed beyond all recognition, and Kathy can tell you the story of that as well.
A confession for you: I’m obviously aware that Jodie Comer exists, and has done astonishing work on telly and in theatre, but I haven’t seen a single second of it until today. Yeah, she’s brilliant, isn’t she? Let’s quickly go back to yesterday’s Ferrari, another tale of men holding symbolic dick-measuring contests with their engines. The BBG had a further objection to it beyond all the ones I discussed in my review: all the female characters in it are there to either support or hinder the men in those dick-measuring contests, and have no other story function aside from that. But in The Bikeriders, everything’s seen from the perspective of Kathy. She’s got possibly the largest amount of screen time, and much of the story is either told through her words or visible in her face – and sometimes those can be two conflicting stories. What could have just been a simple tale of blokes doing blokey things becomes a lot more interesting as a result.
Comer's performance lifts this way above your usual biker flick, but the bikers themselves shouldn’t be ignored. Austin Butler – looking completely different from his recent portrayal of Elvis – gives Benny a sensitivity that marks him out as different from the rest of the gang, even though it’s sometimes overridden by his sheer recklessness. You could say something similar about Tom Hardy's Johnny, whose leader is soft spoken and reassuring to Kathy in private, but capable of GBH if the situation needs it. We see him getting the idea to form the Outlaws after watching Marlon Brando in The Wild One on TV, so it's only right that Hardy is channelling Johnny Stabler in his performance, although he wittily sneaks some Don Corleone in there too. Against these three the rest of the gang are just supporting players, but it’s nice to see Nichols regular Michael Shannon providing a memorable cameo.
The Bikeriders gives you barnstorming drama as well as all the cheap thrills you’d want from a biker movie. And that goes double for the soundtrack, a glorious collection of 50s and 60s rock and R&B classics. The woman sitting next to me at this screening (no, not that one) literally took her phone out at the end to film the music credits, presumably with a view to making a playlist. My general rule is that if a movie inspires you to make a playlist of its music, you’ll probably find that someone’s already done that.
6.15pm: The Settlers [trailer]
How much Chilean cinema have I seen so far? Not much, really. Digging through this list, it looks like I've watched a small clump of early Pablo Larrain films, and that’s it. But I've caught two at this festival: Penal Cordillera a couple of days ago, and now this one. If I wanted to draw conclusions from a recklessly small sample size, I'd suggest that cinema seems to be the way that Chile works through some of the grimmer aspects of its past, in order to highlight mistakes it should try to avoid in its future.
The Settlers is set in Tierra del Fuego around the start of the 20th century, as the Chileans, the Indians and the newly-arrived Europeans are trying to work out how to share the land between them. The Europeans have predictably quite strong ideas about this. As part of this process, a team of three - local guide Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), British soldier MacLennan (Mark Stanley) and American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) – has been sent out to clear a path across the country so that the landowner can move his sheep freely. We all understand what ‘clear’ means in this context, don’t we? Just checking.
So if Chilean cinema is all about learning lessons from the errors of the past, the key lesson of this film is 'don’t let your country be colonised by genocidal maniacs, because they'll end up being your ancestors and you’ll be really embarrassed by them'. The specific aim of director Felipe Gálvez Haberle is to shed a light on a dark period in Chile’s history that's been quietly swept under the carpet. He's not afraid to depict that darkness explicitly, so at times this is a quite a tough watch, with the whole ‘colonisation as rape’ metaphor being used a little too often for its own good (although the second use of it is quite different from the first). But as a road movie intercut with bursts of unpleasantness, it definitely has its strengths, with the landscape looking particularly magnificent.
It makes it all the more surprising, then, that the key event Haberle wants to tell the world about takes place entirely off screen. Maybe he thought it was too horrific to depict: maybe he ran out of money: maybe it’s a commentary on how it’s an episode that has been literally erased from Chilean history. I hope it’s the latter, because the final scenes – dedicated to the process of that erasure – make for a sly conclusion to a film that manages to remain riveting even as its oddly rickety structure tries to shake you off.