TIFF 2008: The Burrowers

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The Burrowers
Directed by J.T. Petty

With the American Western turned sufficiently on its head over the last few years, thanks to new interpretations that have upped the quotient of brutality (The Proposition, the Western-in-Coens-clothing No Country for Old Men), beauty (The Assassination of Jesse James) or both (Deadwood). As it seems it must, two trends have now collided, with the newly rejuvenated Western butting heads with the newly resurgent creature feature in J.T. Petty’s initially promising but ultimately negligible fourth feature The Burrowers. Something like Tremors meets Dances With Wolves, but without ever establishing an appropriate tone either of camp enjoyment or grave foreboding.

Karl Geary (Petty’s Mimic 3: Sentinel) and Sean Patrick Thomas (Save the Last Dance) star as, respectively, an Irish immigrant and a Freeman in Dakota in 1876, who end up in an obviously doomed search party led by a wicked mustachioed man of indeterminate origin (we know he’s wicked not only because of the mustache, but because he constantly berates all the non-white characters). The party in question is doomed because people keep disappearing, only to be found later mostly covered in dirt – still technically alive, but completely unresponsive otherwise. The aforementioned evil mustache (Doug Hutchison) is convinced it’s the work of malevolent Indians and vows to hunt them down – but the local Ute population knows otherwise and are eager to see the arrogant white men consumed by the mysterious beasts that creep the surrounding grasslands.

Despite a potentially juicy premise, The Burrowers is laughably incoherent and falls apart completely after a promising first 20 minutes. Petty, who also wrote the film, directs as though we should be taking the dangers at hand seriously, but is thoroughly unconvincing in conveying period language and detail. His idea of “period” dialogue is to insert “I reckon” or “I gather” into a conversation a few times. Thomas’ Callahan (who is meant to be from Georgia, but doesn’t even attempt an accent) is made to insist, embarrassingly, that “everything’s cool” in one scene. There’s a mildly amusing exchange between Thomas and Geary on the subject of their shared otherness, but it feels too convenient to be genuine. Noble Indian tropes are prominent. Perhaps most cripplingly, the creatures themselves (subterranean sluglike wraiths) are comically phallic and become increasingly laughable as the film progresses – when we discover that a good kick can keep the crawlers at bay, it makes their earlier conquests seem unlikely. The two most unique aspects of the film’s concept – the eerie manner in which “survivors” appear in the ground, and the use of a period setting – are undone by its poor stagings (not to mention often-stodgy CGI) and wildly inconsistent tonal work. It could have worked as high camp, but Petty’s self-serious tone digs a hole it can’t escape

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