“The Killer” is the latest release from Brazilian writer and director Marcelo Galvão (“Farewell”). This gunslinging western isn’t set in the Wild West, but instead during the 1940s in the desert badlands of Brazil, telling the story of the feared manhunter Cabaleira (Diogo Morgado, “Son of God”). Following a wide release in Brazil during April of 2016, the film comes to Netflix with English subtitles as the streaming service begins to expand its catalogue of international films. The film is a far-cry from a sleek, overproduced western, and it certainly doesn’t romanticize its subject matter. Despite its harsh, visceral and gritty aesthetic, the film avoids monotony with excellent production, performances and more than a few tricks up its sleeve.
One of the most immediately recognizable strengths of the film is its cinematography. Containing more than its fair share of engaging, artful shots, Galvão’s visual direction offers a fresh lens for the Western genre, making creative use of birdseye shots that travel over doorways and follow characters between rooms. The cinematography also changes stylistically throughout the film to fit the tone of specific scenes. For example, as the narrator describes the delightfully despicable owner of a small desert town, Monsieur Blanchard, the audience is shown a series of Wes Anderson-esque frontal shots of ornate “M.B.” placards on local buildings. During a climactic scene that sees the main character injured, however, Galvão instead uses fast paced, abstract cut-aways that are reminiscent of Alejandro Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” The film’s array of cinematographic styles flow together wonderfully, never feeling jarring because they closely follow the tone of the film.
Voiceover narration is often criticized in film as a crutch for directors who assume their audience is stupid. In “The Killer,” however, narration is skillfully used as a means to help convey the legendary, larger than life weight of the characters and events in the film. As the narrator tells Cabaleira’s story over a campfire, one can’t help but be drawn in. If this weren’t enough, the cast offers solid performances that couple with strong writing to create vivid, memorable characters. The villainous Blanchard family in particular are the types of villains that are unbelievably fun to hate. The film is certainly not one you’d expect to have a musical number, but it happens nevertheless as the despicable Monsieur and Madame Blanchard sing in a cabaret show about their desire to burn their enemies homes to the ground and have sex on the ground in front of the inferno. Yep.
Perhaps the one place the film falters is its story, which is at some times predictable and at others hard to follow. The story takes several twists and turns, following several tangentially related characters’ storylines, occasionally leaving audiences wondering “Who are these people?” While everything is eventually explained, it’s sometimes not without a solid 20 to 30 minutes of head scratching over what the relevance of these scenes are to the overall plot. Other elements of the film were just plain predictable; more than one or two would-be big reveals are squandered by being visible from a mile away. These hiccups could be due to fault subtitle translation, but regardless the result is the same: The portrayal an overarching story seems to hinder the film more than it helps.
While the storytelling may stumble once or twice, “The Killer” remains an entertaining experience. Excellent cinematography blends a multitude of visual styles in a way that feels unique without feeling out of place, and solid character writing and performances fill the Brazilian badlands with an array of vibrant characters. The story, flawed though it may be, almost feels secondary to a film that’s more of a stylized portrait of a time period and a place. It has a central story, but overall the film seems better suited as an invitation for audiences to be immersed in the rough, wild and gritty world that it portrays.