A satisfyingly slow-burn and low-key historical horror, J.T. Petty's Western period horror flick The Borrowers eschews tired and familiar Western tropes to create a eco-horror that casts the human impact of Western expansion as an especially grisly form of species-wide suicide. This twisting of the dust-covered but still somehow sacred legends of the West – both the Whig history notions of manifest destiny (with its corresponding "gritty and grim" deconstructionists mirror image) and the more PC contemporary fantasy of pre-white America as agrarian utopia – is all the more clever in that Petty rope-a-dopes nostalgic viewers who basically want fanservice. He repeated feints towards these themes, only to subsume them into the quiet and in doomed vision of the West he envisions: a dispassionate, Darwinian vision that has more in common with the ahumanism of American poet Robinson Jeffers than the heroic Westerns of yore, their wigged out foreign counterparts, or the postmodern navel gazing of most contemporary Westerns.
The Burrowers opens in familiar territory. A frontier family been has vanished with signs of struggle. The assumption is that Indians got them. A posse is formed – combining well-meaning, good-hearted types with hard-bitten, cynical, and potentially unhinged types – to go rescue them. The obvious reference is to Ford's classic The Searchers and its epic plot to reclaim a kidnapped girl from Apaches. But, as will happen throughout the film, Petty picks up the allusion, holds it up the viewers, and then sets it down without further development. He seems to be saying, "We all see this is here, right. Now come on, that's not where we're going." It's a weird sort of un-allusion, one that viewers comfortable with horror's insular in-joke Pavlovian fan reward system may find awkwardly stand-offish. What's the point in alluding to all these great Westerns if you're not going to work within their tropes and explore their space? There's almost a sense of presumptuous disavowal in his approach. In the genre's parlance, Petty strays from the reservation.
As the posse gets to their grim work, similar shopworn tropes of the Western genre appear and fade away. We get the homesteaders versus the military, whites versus the Indians, the idealists versus the "realists." But always, Petty undermines these and then tosses them away. For example, Indians appear on both sides of the U.S. versus native conflict, and these quisling Native American don't actually turn out to be the most cynical First Peoples in the story.
Eventually, the posse realizes that they are not on a trail of a war party. Instead, they're marching deeper and deeper into the hunting ground of a species of humanoid/insectile predators that Native Americans have dubbed "the burrowers" for their unsettling habit of paralyzing their prey, burying it in a shallow grave, and coming back for dinner when their victims have rotted and softened just a bit. This revelation comes a bit too late, however, and the posse members who are still alive when the full puzzle has been assembled are forced to seek aid from a tribe rumored to have perfected a method of defeating the beasts. What they don't know is that the tribe's method is about as palatable as the feeding habits of the burrowers.
We're told by one of the Indian characters that the burrowers were not a problem until the whites killed all the buffalo, allegedly the preferred food source of the burrowers. Now forced to find other sources of sustenance, the burrowers have turned to humans. This is, I think, another of Petty's curious un-nods to convention. Burrowers may have been less of a problem in the days before the extinction of the bison. But I think Petty strongly implies that this, at best, a half-true "just so story." Here's how I reckon. First, the burrowers' method of attack is clearly adapted to humans. The burrowers are nocturnal and show profound patience. Like good pack predators, they follow their prey for long periods of time, waiting until they see a weak, separated, or otherwise tastily inviting target. This is pretty much SOP for pack predators. What's weird about the burrowers is that their preferred method of dealing with prey really only makes sense if you’re a stationary predator (like a spider) or if you're dealing with a species of animal they would search for and then attempt to care for paralyzed members of the herd (an example of which I cannot call to mind because humans are really the only animals that regularly try this). Think of it this way. Burrowers are crappily adapted to hunt bison herds. Every time they strike, they'd send a herd running and be faced with the choice of staying with their paralyzed prey or chasing after the herd. By contrast, every time they hit a group of humans, the humans bunch up and start searching for the missing humans. The behavior of the burrowers suggests that they hunt humans.
Further evidence to the fact that Native Americans and burrowers have been at one another for a long time derives from the Native American response to the burrowers. Late in the flick, it is revealed that a single tribe, the Ute, has developed a method of fighting the burrowers. All the other tribes know this fact, but none have either bothered to develop their own method or copy the way of the Ute. This is because the Ute basically flip the script on pack predator strategy and booby-trap the weakest link in the "herd" (in this case, herd means group of humans). The method works like this. The bait-human is doped. The burrowers attack and are doped as well. With the burrowers now weakened, the Ute use long spears to pin the burrowers to the ground. The pinned and tranquilized burrows are stuck until sunrise, when direct exposure to sunlight does them in. The brilliance of the method is that, done right, it involves almost no direct fighting, minimizing the chances that humans would get injured. Except, of course, for the poor man or woman you've sacrificed as bait. Why do I feel this is evidence that Native Americans and burrowers have been at one another for some time? When burrowers take on humans, it tends to be a pretty one-sided battle. They are the lions and we're the zebras. In order for a David to beat a Goliath, they have to game the salient details of what system they're in while figuring out what details are non-salient to winning the game. In this case, winning equals not getting eaten. The Ute's method works and the posse fails because they make the socially unacceptable choice automatically give up a human life every time they get into a conflict with the burrowers. This is why the other tribes know the Ute can beat the burrowers, but refuse to adopt their system. I think the tribe wide adoption of this sacrifice system would probably take some time. No Ute wants to die any more than a member of the posse or member of another tribe does. Furthermore, fine detail of the system and its standardization suggest regular use, which requires time. Lastly, the dissemination of this information across dispersed tribes would require some time as well. In Petty's flick, the whites might be new to the fight, but the implication is that the fight's been going on for some time.
This discussion of people and monsters as lions and zebras might seem odd, but I think it I embedded in the flicks tone and characterization. In keeping with a sort of ecological mindset, the main characters in this flick aren't individual cowboys and Indians. Rather, the film follows groups: the posse, the tribe, the Army, and so on. This is another clever subversion of the classical Western paradigm and its discontents. If the classic Western is about the Great Man – be it the noble sheriff or the restless anti-hero – and the various spaghetti and pomo Westerns are about what violent jerks Great Men can be, then Petty's evodevo-Western deemphasizes the role of individual altogether. As in the Ute's sacrificial counter-attack move, the lives of individuals account for little. The bloody process of adapting is the star of the movie. If Ford's great Western vista's suggested a monumental stage appropriate to the passions of his titanic characters, Petty's wide-angle landscapes shrink his characters. The landscape suggests their insignificance. They become a near mirror image of the burrowers: marching lines of ants to match the locust-like swarms of monsters. Its perhaps the sweetest irony of the film that Petty dresses this extremely foreign conceptual approach to horror in the sheep's clothing of America's more familiar genre.
I suspect most fans of the Western will treat this with the same befuddled disdain that greets films like Dead Man and Walker. Though, in many ways, The Burrowers will be even worse for them because, unlike those two flicks, there are few visual cues to tip viewers off to the weirdness at the films core. To steal the words of C. S. Lewis, trying to sell this flick to the nostalgist will be trying "to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay." Because, at its base, it isn't a Western. It is a thoughtful, surprising quiet, and pleasantly unsettling horror flick that happens to take place in the old West.
Plus, it contains one of the funniest add-ons I've ever seen. The DVD comes with a little featurette containing an interview with a woman who plays one of the burrowers. This monster actor's praise for Petty's direction is brilliant and suggests how different the art of being monstrous is from any other sort of acting. Be sure to check it out.