Review by Sean Boelman
As a genre, the Western isn’t particularly known for its progressivism, but David Perrault’s wonderfully daring Savage State takes these conventions and makes something intensely relevant to the political climate out of them. Consistently beautiful and sometimes disturbing, Perrault’s film is arguably one of the best Civil War movies of this century.
The film tells the story of a group of French settlers who decide to flee from their American home when the Civil War breaks out, making the long, arduous, and dangerous journey with the help of a less-than-trustworthy guide. What makes Perrault’s script so interesting is that it takes a common Western trope and reverses it. Rather than the settlers traveling into the inhospitable and uncivilized world and encountering violence and obstacles, it is them trying to escape that world.
There are some really interesting things to be said about the Civil War in this movie, a lot of which play into modern debates about history. The film questions what it means to fight in a war in which one doesn’t have any stakes and the complicity of going along with things. And in an era in which people are discussing the ethicality of the Confederacy, the argument made here is an important one.
Also interesting is the fact that Perrault’s characterization runs counter to a typically male-dominated genre. Although there is a patriarch and a male guiding force, the movie is ultimately about the women at the center of the story, and this becomes more and more clear as it progresses.
All of the performances are quite good. Alice Isaaz is excellent as the lead, really capturing the evolution of the character from something more traditional into something much more unorthodox. Kevin Janssens is great as well, also able to subvert expectations in a refreshing way.
The pacing of this film is absolutely insane. The first thirty minutes are a slow build to a break into the second act that is off-the-walls with its intensity. And for the rest of the two-hour runtime, it never lets go of the viewer. Even when a moment might feel safe, there is something lurking around the corner to catch the characters off-guard.
The gorgeous visuals and score are also highlights of the movie. Christophe Duchange’s cinematography is magnificent, really capturing the understated terrors of the old west. Sébastien Perrault is the true MVP, though, with his score that is hypnotic and alluring in an unexpected way.
Savage State offers a much-needed fresh perspective in a genre that is too often rooted in traditional cliches. But even beyond the amazing script, this Western impresses thanks to all-around effective execution.
Savage State screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs August 20-September 2. An encore screening (geoblocked to Canada) occurs on August 31 at 7pm.