Written by: Daniel Hadley
Directors: Phil Guidry, Simon Herbert, David Whelen
Cast: Edward L. Green, George Lionel Savage, Jason Stewart
Authentically mimicking the style of a documentary is not as easy as some would assume and one of the best aspects of Savageland is just how well it achieves this feat. Knowing nothing about this film going in, I was tricked into believing – for a while at least – what I was seeing was indeed a true crime documentary, so kudos to the filmmakers there.
Savageland documents the fictional case of Sangre De Cristo, a border town in Arizona that is wiped out overnight in what the movie describes as the biggest mass murder in American history. The lone survivor, Francisco Salazar, an illegal immigrant is picked up by authorities in the aftermath and later charged for the murder of all fifty-seven residents of the small town. As the story unfolds the film gives us several perspectives as radio personalities, the authorities, the victims loved ones, sceptics and many more offer their opinions and theorise as to what went down in the small town of Sangre De Cristo on the night when all but one of its residents were butchered. Only when a roll of film from Francisco’s camera is found and developed do we get a glimpse as to what truly happened.
Savageland takes a very well used movie monster and a very well used plot, but tells its story in a unique way. Dealing with the aftermath of the event and retelling its story in a true crime documentary style is something I have never seen done before and that premise alone is worthy of commendation (the closest thing to this I can think of is 2012’s The Bay). After watching Savageland I took some time to read what other critics have said and to my surprise each review I read was overwhelmingly positive. I can’t deny that the unique style of Savageland does tip it over into the positive end of my rating spectrum, but the movie does have problems.
After the reveal of the photographs the movie takes us on a tour of the town detailing Francisco’s journey as he documented the horror and carnage that took place, starting from his home, where the first victim was found. As we are shown the multiple perspectives from various characters it’s clear that there is no true consensus as to what really happened, though given we as the audience are shown the photographs and everyone else in movie has also seen them, what went down is pretty undeniable. So that begs the question, why is Francisco Salazar still being charged with the murders of fifty-seven people he obviously didn’t kill?
Unfortunately, I just didn’t buy the movies explanation. Anyone who knows the true story of the West Memphis three or has seen the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy will know just how the American judicial system can be corrupted and how a jury can be swayed on nothing but flimsy circumstantial evidence. The problem here is that the photographs are deemed inadmissible as evidence, for reasons such as “they could be photoshopped,” or “they could be staged,” despite showing victims clearly being attacked and killed by something other than Francisco. Now I get that the movie was playing on racial Biases that are inherent on the Mexico/Arizona border, but the justice system simply does not work that way.
All of this however could have been forgiven if the movie hadn’t grounded itself so firmly in reality, and with that being the case, If this had been the biggest mass murder in us history, then the story would have been worldwide and the photographs along with a litany of other evidence such as the forensics and the professional opinions of both a Photographer who swears to the photo’s authenticity and a shrink who deems Francisco to be telling the truth, suffering from PTSD and above all else “not crazy,” would not have been dismissed. Some may say I am nit-picking, but when a movie goes for realism then it has to be realistic.
The acting also didn’t lend itself well to the style, while the performances where never bad and some were very good, a film such as this lives and dies by its authenticity and the weak links really broke the chain here, for instance, we are played a voice mail left during the attack (it’s really hard not to get into spoilers here) the line delivery was for want of a better phrase, over performed, and personally I think having a character simply read the transcript would have been a better choice.
Credit where credit is due though, the majority of the performances were very good and on the whole the cast and filmmakers should be commended, this is after all a very low budget movie and the majority of the characters felt like real people giving real interviews; having watched a ton of true crime documentaries myself I can attest to this whole heartedly.
So onto the photographs I mentioned above, simply put, despite one or two they are fantastic. As Francisco’s journey through the ill-fated town is laid out piece by piece we are shown the accompanying photographs as he moves from location to location, they are creepy, terrifying and unsettling. Some in particular are incredibly well staged, the very first image for instance, which is one of only three taken in daylight, shows something wholly unnatural tearing across the hills on the horizon and descending upon the small town, it literally gave me chills. Just over thirty images are shown and each one shows a steady sense of escalation as the carnage unfolds across the small town, leading to a crescendo that – it kills me to say this – totally lost me.
Though the proceeding photographs are very well done, the final three really hinge on one characters face as they express both terror and pain and unfortunately I just didn’t believe them, though I am frankly thankful, as who this character is and what these last three pictures show is something I would never wish to see if it were to be shown with the realistic authenticity that the filmmakers were striving for. Apologies for the lack of detail here but I’m trying not to spoil anything.
I have to say this is possibly the most difficult review I have written, there is so much to admire in this movie and it’s brave for first time filmmakers to take such a huge risk with taking an old school monster and weaving a narrative around it in such a unique and realistic way and although that realism ends up being its Achilles heel, more first time filmmakers should take Savageland as an example of how to think outside the box and deliver something very different from the norm.
Although my critique thus far has leant more towards the negative aspects of the film I can’t deny I did enjoy Savageland and although there are some story aspects I couldn’t quite get behind, it’s an ambitious first attempt from a group of filmmakers that clearly have a lot of talent and passion and while in my opinion they may have over reached a little too far in some areas they were definitely reaching in the right directions.