Review: Night Raiders is a dystopian thriller that feels utterly of the moment

Danis Goulet's residential-school allegory stars Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as a mother trying to rescue her daughter from colonial re-education


NIGHT RAIDERS (Danis Goulet). 101 minutes. Some subtitles. Now playing in theatres. Rating: NNNNN

Night Raiders is science fiction in the same way that Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are science fiction, which is to say that if one is completely unaware of the world outside one’s window, one might be able to fool oneself into believing these are works of preposterous speculation. But if you follow the news, you know there’s nothing here that isn’t queasily possible. To quote another sci-fi parable: all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.

Danis Goulet’s measured, devastating first feature is set about a quarter-century in the future, in a Canada under military occupation from a nation identified only as “the southern state.” It’s a dystopian thriller told through an existing Indigenous lens.

Night Raiders takes place in a militarized border city, where a Cree woman named Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) races to rescue her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) from a draconian State Academy, before the girl can be fully remade into an obedient servant of the occupying force.

Any resemblance to Canadian history is entirely intentional, but Goulet doesn’t stop there, fixing her residential-school allegory in an efficient and entirely convincing dystopia that might as well be happening right now. The film was shot in the fall of 2019, but its focus on Indigenous characters pulling their shattered culture back together and looking for a way forward is awfully relevant to the current moment … as are the scenes of characters masking up to avoid a plague running through their community.

But as eerily prescient as it may be, Night Raiders functions perfectly well on its own terms. It’s a crisp, unsentimental thriller about a woman on a mission, and the community that forms around her for its own reasons. A band of freedom fighters – most of them Indigenous, and one of whom is played by The Body Remembers’ Violet Nelson – embraces her as a prophecized saviour who’ll put an end to the southern occupation and deliver their people to freedom. Niska doesn’t believe them, but she’s willing to accept their help if it gives her a better shot at liberating Waseese. And the raid is underway.

Tailfeathers follows her remarkable work in The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open with another thoroughly felt performance: with minimal dialogue, she shows us how Niska has abandoned her culture along with her optimism. She left everything behind years earlier and fled north to keep Waseese out of the hands of the invaders, returning only to save her daughter’s life. Even as Niska becomes part of her new community, Tailfeathers lets us see how hard it is for our hero to access the parts of herself she’s repressed for so long.

I won’t be the only critic to make comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Children Of Men, but that’s because the comparison stands: Goulet is working with a similar grimy, functional aesthetic, though she uses it for her own ends, and Tailfeathers’s Niska has the same reluctant-hero energy as Clive Owen’s Theo, quietly furious that the world won’t just let her be miserable in peace, but willing to do whatever it takes to secure a future for those coming up after her.

But all that said, Night Raiders isn’t just an echo of Cuarón’s masterwork; it’s very much its own thing, folding Canada’s past and possible future together to create a film that feels utterly of the moment. It’s a hell of a debut, and I am very, very excited to see how Goulet follows it.

@normwilner

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