As he raged through the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, playing the murderous devil called Chigurh, was actor Javier Bardem taking inspiration from singularly menacing screen presence of Udo Kier?

That question crosses my mind as I watch the new film Bacarau, and see Udo Kier, playing a fearsome American murderer, bear down on the town of Bacarau, Brazil, with a machine gun and a silencer. He staggers rather like a demon wearing a human body suit, his eyes devoid of conscience, his view of Brazil as a place for exotic game hunting where the “game” are the people of Bacarau.

Udo Kier in <i>Bacarau</i>.

Meanwhile, converging on the same town are the members of his team — a contentious, uneasy band of Americans who have signed on for the thrill of walking into a foreign culture and mowing down strangers with their heavy artillery. They may as well be alien invaders from outer space bent on annihilating the locals.

But are they just doing this for fun? Or is there a relationship between the “hunters” and some greater power? The movie teases us with possibilities — like the fact that a UFO is swooping down over Bacarau (I am not making that up), and the fact that the mayor, seeking re-election, seems to have higher priorities than the people’s desperate please for basic human resources… like water.

As if strangers with guns aren’t trouble enough for Bacarau — UFOs are zipping around too.

What is Bacarau?

American moviegoers aren’t likely to know — and the film makes a major point of that. Needy communities of indigenous peoples are so easily overlooked when the world’s mapmakers, influenced by the global influence of capitalism, only mark those places that “matter.”

Bacarau is a troubled multi-generational community of Brazilian people trying to find a way to stay alive through centuries of change. As the film begins, they have just lost their 94-year-old matrirach, Carmelita, and are observing traditions of mourning. The people are a communal neighborhood, carefully distributing the meager supplies brought in on trucks. “Take what you need and share,” says an elder when bags of food are set out on a large table at a community assembly.

Despite their poverty, their often contentious relationships, the tendency of young people to abandon the town as soon as they’re able, their reliance on vigilantes to serve as defenders against exploitative forces both local and foreign, and the compromises they make to stay alive (we catch glimpses of a local brothel that is accepted as a fundamental community service), the people of Bacarau have a sense of dignity and a grasp of human decency, cautiously extending a welcome to visitors.

The people of Bacarau are already grieving as the film begins, but their troubles are about to worsen.

When strangers — in this case, “tourists” on motorbikes, concealing deadly agendas — ask “What are the inhabitants of Bacarau called?”, a child, smiling cautiously up at them, says, “People.” And when the mayor’s entourage haul a local sex worker out of town, the town doctor, a temperamental force to be reckoned with — and played by the fantastic Sônia Braga — sticks out her neck to defend the woman’s dignity.

These assertions of human dignity for common Brazilian people resonate throughout the film as most of the gun-toting outsiders reveal that they don’t view non-whites as people worth respecting. (Those who differ with them are non-whites doing their best to assimilate, believing that they’ll escape the slaughter if they kiss up to killers.)  There is a strong 2020 vibe in this film with its intense focus on the consequences of white supremacist ideology and its connections to Nazism.

The first half of this was imaginative and exploratory, teasing me along with an intriguing narrative restraint. And at the first appearance of that UFO — which looks about as menacing as the spacecraft in Plan 9 from Outer Space — I thought this might represent a vision as ambitious in its genre ambiguity as Zhangke’s Still Life.

Some of Bacarau’s younger citizens have come home, and now they’re taking up arms to defend their people.

Alas, no — in its second half, the film falls short of such visionary reach.

While I can respect its depiction of heartless Americans expressing their contempt for what our President calls “shithole countries,” Bacarau lost me when it took a familiar genre route toward a predictably bloody finale. Granted, I’ve only recently recovered from the stylized bloodbaths of Let the Corpses Tan and Mandy, and I wasn’t in the mood for another one. How many Westerns have we seen in which the vigilantes-for-hire, gunslingers-for-hire, or samurai-for-hire end up caring about their endangered community and thus coordinate them into a makeshift community army to defend their home turf? (At one point, I groaned “Is this movie taking notes from Three Amigos?”) Do we need another of those stories?

Worst of all, after setting up an effective-if-simplistic allegory of America’s utter disregard for indigenous peoples, the film revels in the kind of eye-for-an-eye gore-fest that used to win page space for art films in magazines that celebrated carnage — like Fangoria magazine. If a movie like this wants to stand strong as an earnest lament for exploited societies that don’t show up on Capitalism’s mapping apps, it needs to point to something more than wish-fulfillment vengeance and bloodbaths as an answer.

Teacher, why isn’t our town on Google maps anymore?

Still, there are enough indelible images here — a dog dodging a late-night stampede of horses through town, a street littered with empty coffins, a museum in which handprints of fresh blood stand out in sharp contrast to the faded archival photos on the walls — to make me want to read a lot of reviews, essays, and interviews, and then to revisit this film. I suspect there is far more going on here than I can catch on a first viewing.

And, admitting my own embarrassing ignorance about the peoples, traditions, and history of Brazil, I take this film as rebuke: I need to know my neighbors better. Do I want to be one of those Americans who isn’t paying enough attention to recognize when the agendas of my own country are inflicting suffering on communities like this one?

This is only the second film by director Kleber Mendonça Filho I’ve seen. (Aquarius is a film I need to catch up with, but Neighboring Sounds was on my top-ten favorites list from 2012). And this one is co-written and co-directed by Juliano Dornelles. I many not like their violent crescendo, but I am otherwise impressed with their symphonic blend of satire, sci-fi, and Western tropes.

From a distance, Bacarau looks quiet and vulnerable. Looks can be deceiving.

They even go so far as to salute one of their inspirations. Thanks to a review at The Film Stage, I’m loving a little detail that I missed while watching the movie: Bacarau’s schoolhouse is marked with the name “João Carpinteiro.” As Giovanni Marchini Camia writes, “If the throbbing synth track that introduces the opening credits, the film’s glorious widescreen photography, and the narrative’s Rio Bravo-indebted premise weren’t sufficiently indicative, Google Translate helpfully confirms that in English the name does indeed translate to that of the author of Assault on Precinct 13.”

I’m also impressed by their inventiveness, and the way they can craft vivid, sophisticated cinema with seemingly few resources. And I’m grateful for their inclination to tell stories that ask us to pay attention and to care about vulnerable populations.

They seem to live in the world that Cormac McCarthy wrote about in No Country for Old Men — one in which a powerful, soul-sickening darkness is advancing. “You can’t stop what’s comin’,” someone warns us as the murderer Chigurh marches through town killing whomever he pleases. In Bacarau, that may be true. But at least this community isn’t going to ignore the danger. They’re remaining vigilant, putting aside their differences, and working together to keep their traditions alive.