Filmfest DC Review: 'Searchers' Is A Thrilling, Inuit Remake Of John Ford's Classic

Perhaps because the Western is considered the most American of genres, other countries have been eager to put their own international spin on some of our classics. In recent years there have been numerous such films, but remaking John Ford's The Searchers poses a particularly interesting challenge. The original film is simple in structure, but is also unquestionably prejudiced against the Native Americans against their white pursuers no matter what unjustifiable actions they later take.

Zacharius Kunkuk's Searchers (Maliglutit) is a spiritual remake of Ford's film set in Canada's Nunavut, and told from the perspective of the barely-understood Inuit people. It would have been interesting, perhaps cathartic in a way, if Kunkuk reversed the roles in a way, and had white people as the villains and Inuits as the gallant heroes. Instead he chooses to remove any such concerns from the story completely by having both sides of this dispute portrayed by Inuits, except from opposing tribes. The result is a cleaner yet harsher tale of vengeance and survival, where the icy elements are more likely to kill you than any Indian's arrow.

The frozen tundra of Nunavut is home to Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) and his family; a wife, a daughter, and a young son named Siku (Joseph Uttak) who has yet to grasp the skills necessary to survive in such a tough environment. Food is scarce, and what little there is consists of fish and meat covered in thick layers of ice that must be hacked to be remotely edible. One gets the impression these people have never known what it's like to be truly warm, even with their small fires inside their igloos and heavy coats covering every inch of their bodies. When Kuana and Siku leave to find caribou for food, their camp is attacked by a scurrilous band of randy savages who kill everyone inside except for his wife and daughter who are kidnapped. What follows is a point A to point B "search" for the men responsible, with Kuanana's cries of despair soon replaced by shouts of rage.

The actual search proves to be incredibly thrilling due to a variety of factors, one of which is its glacial (pun intended) pace. Taking place via dogsled rather than horseback, you can't help but pity the poor canines as they trudge through deep layers of snow, dragging along hundreds of pounds for little reward. Seriously, these are the most ravenous dogs I've ever seen on screen. Given the authenticity in every frame of Kunkuk's production, it wouldn't surprise me if these dogs had been starved for weeks. While there isn't any fear of the main characters freezing to death, getting stuck and perhaps having the dogs rebel against their masters is a legitimate concern. It's hard to tell when the story actually take place, and it really doesn't matter. We seem to have been dropped into some kind of frozen nether-region separate from the rest of the world and where no man can escape. If you thought The Revenant looked cold, Searchers is closer to an icy Hell.

Because everyone has so little we come to feel for them all in some way, at least a little bit. Even the "villains" are understandable in that they have been ostracized from their own society, and are desperate for both food and female companionship. As you can imagine, finding a woman is a little bit tough out there. That's no excuse for the actions they take, especially a latter rape scene, but in such a lawless place where are the social boundaries? Of course, Kuanana is the hero and is presented as such, however he's mostly a blank slate and thus not particularly interesting. Some more interaction between him and Siku, who is way out of his depth, would have done a lot to add some much needed conflict until the inevitable showdown. It can get a bit dry simply watching dogsleds race through the snow. But it's also nice to see that the kidnapped women aren't framed as victims. They give their captors all they can handle and more. One thing the indigenous people share with their Western counterparts is a marginalization of their women, so Kunkuk giving them a strength to endure is a welcome touch.

Searchers may prove too culturally specific for some audiences, but for those looking to experience a rarely-explored civilization through the frame of a Western classic, this is a film to seek out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Filmfest DC runs through April 30th. Tickets for Searchers can be purchased here