Savage State is more fetish than flesh, settling for cyphers that vaguely reflect old Western classics.
Although the Western may be long past its heyday, there are still filmmakers working within the genre who are trying to redefine and revive it, through the introduction of new ideas and other unique means of expression. There are some trends, though, that bind together a select group of ‘post-modern Westerns’: an emphasis on less plot and less action, with the focus shifted instead to atmospheric mood or some contemplative, mysterious or mystical quality. Call these ‘Transcendental Westerns’ — and David Perrault’s Savage State fits the bill. The film is pretty much unconcerned with narrative and more solicitous toward its sun-dappled, trippy visual effects. An eclectic film that manages to combine European romanticism with myths of the Old West, Savage State mostly constitutes a mix of serene and tense moments. The intrigue of that strategy is apparent from the film’s first act, and it helps the French Perrault render his Western as a sensory cinematic experience — with particularly skillful and evocative use of mise-en-scéne. From the Kubrickian candle-lit sets to the Viscontian staging and even some camera movements that seem to mimic Max Ophüls in period drama mode, Perrault shapes an immersive aesthetic that hooks the viewer.
And then the narrative kicks, sends a group of women on the run, and Perrault leaves his immaculate interiors for natural landscapes and otherworldly sights. Unfortunately, it’s also here, heading into the second act, where things are most underdeveloped — even the climactic battle between said women and a wild bunch of masked mercenary men (cf. Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Django) falls flat; the scene’s ridiculous, simple-minded execution fails to even muster any entertaining, B-movie grotesqurie. One can certainly appreciate Savage State’s psychedelic feminist western ambitions, but it doesn’t really follow through on them as convincingly in the latter half — the electronic soundtrack (which resembles Cliff Martinez’s work for Soderbergh’s The Knick of all things) and an overuse of slow motion don’t sell the asthetic effect like they should. And merely casting your film with women isn’t enough on its own to position it as feminist — especially, when most of those characters come off as little more than dummies at a rodeo show. This has become a recurring issue with many a contemporary, post-modern Western — they don’t do much with character, and settle instead for cyphers vaguely representative of old Western classics, more fetish than flesh.