By Karina Longworth
It would be an exaggeration to suggest that JT Petty’s “The Burrowers” goes miles deeper than the hastily-dug graves that play a central role in its plot, but it’s nonetheless one of the more pleasant surprises of Fantastic Fest thus far. Beautifully shot and tightly scripted, it’s the rare Hollywood genre film (bought and paid for by Lionsgate) that’s more concerned with human relationships and behavior than the mysterious supernatural forces that sets the action in motion. Though its narrative definitely turns on the actions of creatures from the unknown, said creatures turn out to be relatively easy to extinguish compared to prejudice and moral decay in the hearts of ordinary men. It plays less like a horror film than a Terrence Malick film, with a mythological MacGuffin designed to reveal dark truths about the men forced to deal with it.
Coffey (Karl Geary), an Irish farmhand in the Dakota territories just after the Civil War, comes a-calling at the Stewart family cabin to ask the young, beautiful Maryanne to marry him. When he gets there, he finds blood, four corpses, and six missing women and children, including his wannabee fiancee. With the locals certain that neighboring “bad Indians” must have captured the women and taken them away, a rescue party is formed to hunt down the perpetrators and hopefully get the ladies back. The outlook is not rosy. Coffey asks a fellow searcher, the cocky Parcher (William Mapother), if he’s ever managed to get a woman captured by Indians back. “Not alive,” he admits. And though he’s heard tell of women coming back breathing, they always return fundamentally changed. As Parcher tells the teenage son of his own love interest, “Any Christian woman would prefer dying to capture.”
The Territories are drawn at first as an expanse so barren that it’s almost devoid of mystery––there can’t be any threat out there except for various types of Indians, because if there were, there would be nowhere for them to hide. But through Parcher as a translator, they soon learn from a number of natives (hotile in verbiage when not actualy shooting to kill) that there is another menace out there, an insidious race of flesh-eating creatures called Burrowers. The Burrowers poison their victims, bury them in shallow graves and come back a few days later to feed. They predate the land wars between settlers and Indians––they were there first. As one Indian maiden puts it, the white men “killed all the buffalo. So they had to feed on something else.” With this bit of knowledge, the mission shifts a bit, but Coffey refuses to give up the search for his girl. This maybe what qualifies “The Burrowers” for its place in this festival more than its liminal horror cred: I’ve noticed that if there’s anything that ties Fantastic Fest films together beyond blood and guts, it’s the idea that the world is full of men who are a little different––a little more sensitive, either a little skinnier or a little fatter, a little smarter but also a little less capable of traditional macho dominance––who will do anything to get and or/keep a girl.
For long stretches, The Burrowers has to look and feel of a Terrence Malick film, all wide, wide shots of Coffey and gang slowly, slowly making their way across the vast expanse of sunlit fields in a sleep-deprived haze, with occasional cutaways to the details of the landscape. It sticks in the head partially because of its overwhelming beauty, but largely because of its refusal to play by the monster movie rules. The answers to some of the narrative’s key questions are implied, but never fully tied up in neat bows. And most importantly, the notion of evil is not limited to the supernatural plane––it’s neither Burrower nor Indian responsible for the film’s final deaths, but someone allegedly on the side of the good guys. Conflict arises naturally from friction within the group as often as it’s sparked by outside forces.
A key secondary character mutters the frustrated realization late in the film that “Nothing is easy.” It’s a one-line joke in a way, but in hindsight, after the plot threads are wrapped up as tight as Petty lets them get, it also seems like a sigh of existential discontent. It’s a sentiment that could be applied towards “Burrowers” chances of finding an audience: with no firm release date set (at least, not according to IMDb) there’s no telling if Lionsgate plans to shunt Petty’s project off the way they’ve done to Midnight Meat Train (and apparently plan to do with the bulk of their horror shelf stock going forward), or if they’ll recognize that there’s something here that elevates “The Burrowers” above the genre content that they’ve apparently come to find distasteful. Nothing is easy, indeed.