The Canadian Western has to be the smallest of film genres. Philip Borsos’ The Grey Fox (1982) pretty much begins and ends the genre. It’s small because Canadians don’t really think we had a western frontier, in the same way America did. That’s not entirely true, but misses a larger point, that really almost all of Canada is frontier. Still. And most of that frontier isn’t west. It’s north. Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk corrects that oversight with an arctic reimagining of John Ford’s classic western The Searchers (1956). Spare and evocative, Kunuk’s Maliglutit brings the Western to the snowbound north with arresting results.
Westerns move in and out of vogue, but always hang around, partly because the genre’s timeless, and partly because of its plasticity. You can fit a lot of different things into the rubric of the Western (see Westworld for a case in point). In Ford’s The Searchers, John Wayne is a Civil War vet searching for his niece, kidnapped and assimilated by the Comanche. Spending years traveling through rugged wastes with his nephew, it becomes clear Wayne’s character is consumed by racist hatred. When he finds his niece, he might even kill her.
Kunuk avoids the dark racism at the heart of The Searchers. Like his first feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), Maliglutit unfolds in a hypnotic place somewhere between documentary and fable. Set in 1913, the film follows Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk), an Inuit hunter desperate to rescue his wife and daughter from a small band of marauders. Inuit themselves, the kidnappers were expelled from Kuanana’s family enclave for adultery and not contributing to the hunt. The young rovers want wives, and killing and kidnapping is the fastest way in a scarcely populated north. With half his family murdered and half taken away, Kuanana sets out with his oldest son, a rifle and two bullets. Whether it’s rescue or vengeance, he’s determined to track them down.
The arctic wilderness is breathtaking, and the harshness of Inuit life is captured with matter-of-fact directness. In some shots, the characters are tiny specks dwarfed by the snowy tundra surrounding them. Others slyly quote Ford’s earlier classic, like the moment where John Wayne enters a cabin to see his slaughtered family, remade here as Kuanana pulls back the flap covering the entrance to an igloo and steps into the bloody scene inside.
Kunuk avoids a direct inversion of The Searchers, opting not to make the kidnappers white hunters, for instance. While the film moves slowly (I’ll resist using the word “glacial”), it speaks to a way of life entirely foreign to most of us. To be surrounded by vast, deadly expanses, without our technological cocoons is almost unimaginable. Instead, Kunuk recognizes the reductive power of this forbidding landscape. Maliglutit gives us a simple tale of vengeance and survival, told deliberately with elemental force.
Maliglutit (Searchers) opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, January 20th, running for a week. For more info, see here.