Weird Western: The Burrowers (2008)
A posse goes after pioneers they believe have been kidnapped by Indians, and instead discover predatory monsters and a terrifying metaphor for genocide.
By Max Sparber
"The Burrowers" is undeniably a weird Western, as it's about some sort of monster in the American west that climbs out of the earth to kidnap people. All that works perfectly well. The monsters are horrible, distorted things that look a little like a turnip has grown fangs, and they have a perfectly horrible approach to killing people. First, they poison you, which causes paralysis and an eventual liquidation of your organs, all while you are alive. Then they bury you and come back and eat you later when you've softened up a little, again while you're still alive. So everything about this is awful and terrifying, as it should be in a monster movie.
But "The Burrowers" is a weird Western with the heart of a revisionist Western, and I find its revisionist sensibilities more interesting than its monsters. In fact, the film starts the same way as "The Searchers," itself arguably a revisionist Western, in which a posse gathers to track down homesteaders who have been ostensibly kidnapped by Indians. And like "The Searchers," "The Burrowers" finds itself addressing the racism of the Old West.
The posse has a few sympathetic characters, including an Irish immigrant (Karl Geary) and Clancy Brown playing the same sort of hard-bitten but essentially kind gunman he played in "Cowboys vs. Aliens." There is also a freed slave, played by Sean Patrick Thomas, whose name is Callaghan but everyone insists on calling Walnut, which is a neat trick of the filmmakers: As far as I can tell, this was not actual slang, but feels like it, and feels racist.
There are also several unsympathetic characters along for the ride, including a settler who is a bit of a braggart about how many Indians he has killed (played by William Mapother, who has Tom Cruise's nose and original last name, and also happens to be his cousin), as well as a Calvary officer with an impressive mustache and a murderous sort of incompetence, played by Doug Hutchison. He has only one answer to any problem, and that's to find the nearest Indian and kill him.
As with "The Searchers," the film's characters express profound concern about what Indian kidnappers might do to women, as though molestation or brutalization is a given. I looked it up, and generally, as with the 1836 kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker, the kidnapped were simply adopted into whatever tribe took them; this seems to have been a tactic employed by some tribes to offset the fact that their population as dwindling due to a genocidal war against them.
The film presents these fears of Indian savagery as pure projection on the part of the posse, as they locate a Native American shortly after hitting the trail, and the first thing they do is kidnap and torture him. In every encounter with Indians in this film, the posse is the hostile aggressor, even when Indians are trying to help, which happens repeatedly.
In fact, without giving too much away, the climax of the film is extremely downbeat, with the posse's genocidal racism against Indians literally making it impossible for them to defend themselves against the film's monsters.
And about the monsters: "The Burrowers" is unambiguous they they too are the product of white encroachment on Indian lands. These monsters only rise up every few generations and formerly fed on bison, but with the near-extinction of their primary prey, they have started going after humans as a substitute.
It's the sort of horror movie I like, where the horror works as a well-crafted metaphor for some sort of human evil. To "The Burrowers" credit, it knows it's addressing a story of genocide, and does not shy away from the subject.
The film has a great, stark look to it, as well as a lean, spare script, both provided by writer/director J. T. Petty, whose background is mostly in writing for video games. Best of all, the film has a much-needed meanness to it — it quickly becomes obvious that this story is not a rescue story, but a more classical horror trope, in which the characters march to extinction, dying off one by one or several at a time.
Best still, the film doesn't have the sort of heroic moment many horror films favor, where the final character confronts and overcomes the monster. No, this is a film in which genocide is all consuming, that mass murder sets off an unstoppable chain reaction that eventually kills everyone, victim and murderer alike.
And that's what makes "The Burrowers" an especially interesting film to me. The film's monsters aren't the toothy turnips that make occasional appearances. They aren't even the racist posse, not really. The real monster is genocide itself, unleashed by humans but with an inexhaustible and indiscriminate hunger for death.
The titular Burrowers, with their poison and their disturbing eating habits, are scary, but the film itself is more than scary. Thematically, "The Burrowers" is terrifying.