Thursday 3 March 2016

Cinema Trips:
Bone Tomahawk
(S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

Ok, listen up folks: S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is a 2015 production, theatrically released in the UK in 2016, and it is a really good movie.

Given the attitude of curmudgeonly disdain that I usually affect when discussing 21st century cinema in these pages, I hope that that statement carries some weight. In fact, the only thing that stops me from chalking up ‘Bone Tomahawk’ as a bone fide great movie is that it actually feels more like two good movies, stitched together Frankenstein-style in a manner that doesn’t entirely work… but more on that in a few paragraphs, after I’ve waxed lyrical on the good a while.

For the bulk of the film’s run-time, what we’ve essentially got here is a classical American Western, played straight, played well, and entirely lacking in winks, nods and awkward college-boy postmodernism of the Tarantino variety. It may not be quite on the level with yr Fords and Peckinpahs (how could it be?), but it’s a solid, serious-ish yet entertaining genre film aimed at grown ups, with good writing, good performances, good photography and good direction. If John Carpenter or Walter Hill were to walk out of the wilderness in 2016 and deliver the former’s long-promised Hawksian Western, there’d be a fair chance it would be less good than this one, put it that way.

In sub-genre terms, we’re looking at a ‘long arduous trail’ / ‘rescuing kidnapped innocents’ number that, remarkably, has the good grace to run through all of the elements that make such stories work without making any cack-handed textural references to ‘The Searchers’ (well ok, very few anyway). If you, like me, yearn for films that can play the old “guy with bad leg can’t keep up with others” / “guy has to shoot his beloved horse” / “guy acts like a trigger-happy jerk but goddamnit he has his reasons” cards and make them feel like actual, significant events for the characters involved rather than just cornball scripting conventions, you’ll be in a happy place through much of ‘Bone Tomahawk’.

Part of the reason the human drama works so well is the exceptionally leisurely pacing, which allows the actors to sink into their roles a bit more thoroughly than is usually permitted in a ‘tough guy’ genre flick like this, meaning that, by the time the proverbial shit hits the fan in the final act, each of them has attained a degree of depth that could reasonably be called ‘novelistic’ (even if we’re talking more Zane Grey than Dostoevsky here), making the succession of gut punches that take place when the gears shift into ‘grueling survival horror’ mode far more harrowing and gripping than would otherwise be the case.

Having said that, the slow-burn approach gets a bit much here and there, leading to a slight ‘sag’ in the middle of picture that a more ruthless editor might have been justified in slicing away at, but basically, I don’t think the excess really amounts to more than one or two scenes that might have been better relegated to the “save it for the director’s cut” file, and these are more than compensated for by the enjoyment of watch a modern movie with enough faith in its audience to stretch out a bit and not feel the need to hit us ‘round the head with some action-packed shenanigans every ten minutes, lest we lose interest and flick channels.

On the acting side, most of the cast is – at the risk of repeating myself – very good, with Richard Jenkins (whom I don’t believe I’ve previously seen in any other films) deserving particular praise for creating a likeable and fully rounded individual out of a character that in lesser hands could have become merely a tiresome comic relief sidekick, and a great cameo from the ever-delightful Sid Haig.

Really though, no one’s going to dare deny that this movie belongs to Kurt Russell. Admittedly, it probably helps that this is the movie Kurt Russell was pretty much born to star in (I mean, for “old school Western with horror twist needs heroic but slightly bumbling aging sheriff to grit teeth and shoot guns”, who else you gonna call?), but still - having accepted the call, he does a magnificent job with it.

Though it barely takes up ninety seconds of screen time, his character’s farewell to his wife before setting out into the wilderness carries more a genuine weight of feeling than anything in a movie like this should really be expected to, and, about one hundred minutes later, his last few minutes on screen comprise such an exultant testament to good ol' fashioned, mans-gotta-do-what-a-mans-gotta-do heroism, it almost makes you want to stand up and salute. Go on, bring on yr soul-withering torture-porn monsterism, movie, you find found yourself thinking, Kurt Russell’s here, and everything’s gonna be ok. Needless to say, he’d be collecting his Oscar right now if we here at BITR had a say in such things.

Which brings us neatly onto the film’s final act, which, as mentioned above, is a bit of a kick to the head to put it mildly. Not that there’s anything wrong with it exactly, you understand – on the contrary, on its own terms, it is thrillingly disorientating and extremely effective. The problem lies more in the fact that the shift in the film’s tone, and more importantly, in the scale of its ambitions, is so vast that parts A and B never quite manage to cohere into a unified whole.

Basically, the two thirds of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ that are purely a western are so well done that the story could have concluded in a wholly conventional manner (with, say, a shootout with some bandits or something), and the horror-free variant of the film would still have been as fine a tribute to the legacy of the genre as one could wish for. The western stuff is stately, dramatic, emotionally affecting and even somewhat epic… making the decision to suddenly derail it into the realm of a nerve-shredding, low budget horror movie a bit of a hard sell, in some respects.

It is admittedly a pretty good nerve-shredding, low budget horror movie for the most part, it must be said, with tension, fear and foreboding all exquisitely wrangled during the ‘transitional’ build-up between the two ‘sections’, meaning that when the film’s troglodyte savages do eventually make their attack, it is genuinely frightening in its suddenness and bloodthirsty daylight realism. Like much of the best movie violence, it conveys a sense of dazed, “shit, what happened… is that my arm over there?!” surrealism that rings very true, even if most of us hope we’ll never be in a position to test said truthfulness.

It was only after this, when the film’s characters enter the realm of the savages, that I started to have my doubts. Partly, this is a personal issue, arising from the fact that I found the filmmakers’ decision to start referencing Italian cannibal movies at this point (via the savages’ white-chalk appearance, their predilection for locking people in wooden log cages and subjecting them to displays of sadistic cruelty, and so forth) both cheap and unnecessary. But then, it is possible someone who actually likes Italian cannibal movies might have a different take on that, so there’s little point in my banging on about it further. (Drop me a line, we’ll argue about it some time.)

At this point, it is worth briefly noting that whilst the violence in ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is agreeably strong and bloody throughout (which is exactly as it should be, given the subject matter), the film’s “captured by cannibals” segment features one scene that is exceptionally brutal, going considerably beyond my own personal comfort zone for such things. (I mean, maybe those who regularly seek out ‘extreme’ horror kinda stuff may scoff, but by the standards of a theatrically released film with a name star, it is really nasty.)

This isn’t necessarily a criticism of the film – merely something that potential viewers might want to be made aware of prior to viewing. Actually, in narrative terms, the scene in question proves extremely effective in knocking us off balance and subsequently making us utterly terrified at the thought of the fate that potentially awaits our surviving characters. It’s all just a bit… difficult to reconcile with the enjoyable, old fashioned western I thought I was watching half an hour ago.

‘Bone Tomahawk’s “cannibals” are at least more imaginative creations than the Italian variety, I’ll give them that, and, during the film’s final half hour, we are allowed some fascinating glimpses into the workings of their horrifying and degraded culture. Though as far as I’m aware, nothing even remotely resembling this nameless, languageless, inbred monster tribe ever surfaced during the white man’s conquest of the American continent, the vastness of the North American wilderness and the fragmentary nature of Native American tribal culture does at least lend these creatures an eerie historical plausibility that - as with the cave-dwellers in Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’ (2005) or the subterranean tube-wreck survivor in Gary Sherman’s ‘Deathline’ (1972) - makes thinking through the logic of their grim existence a singularly chilling process.

Thinking further in fact, I believe the only real reason that the cannibal / horror segment of the film doesn’t quite gel with the western section is that it just feels a bit *small* in comparison to the story that has proceeded it. Whereas the western section takes in grand landscapes, swelling music, and touches on the familiar ballet of long shots and close-ups that defines its genre, the ‘horror’ section by contrast finds itself largely confined to one claustrophobic set and a bit of scrubland, whilst the editing becomes jagged and the camerawork functional and shaky.

Far be it from me to level such accusations at what was clearly a very dedicated and well-organised production unit, but at times you almost get the impression that the filmmakers were having so much fun making a Western, they forgot about the horror stuff and found themselves having to knock it up pretty quickly in the last few days of shooting, or whatever.

Certainly, if they’d had a mind to, they could have taken the final act a lot further - made it longer, nastier and more grueling, ratcheting up the tension to the level of something like ‘The Descent’, and showing us a lot more of the savages' world in the process, rather than pulling straight towards a slightly rushed (though still highly stirring) finale and an easy exit for the survivors. For the sake of my nerves, I’m actually  kind of glad they didn’t drag things out, but if they had, I feel it would have made the different halves of the film balance up a lot better, given the monumental scale of the build up that brings us to those last few reels.

But anyway, enough bellyaching.

Like Carpenter and Hill films of yore, there are, mercifully, pretty much no ‘themes’ that can be picked out of ‘Bone Tomahawk’. You could point out to the filmmakers (and I’m sure many have) that presenting an uncritical conflict between white ‘civilisation’ and non-white ‘savagery’ is hardly a helpful or progressive stance for a motion picture to take in 2016, but more than likely they’d just tell you, so f-ing what – it was a good story, so we told it. Ill-advised socio-cultural analysis is really not the point of the exercise.

Like the work of those aforementioned directors, ‘Bone Tomahawk’s virtues lay in the sphere of cinematic craftsmanship, satisfaction (and modification) of genre expectations, and traditional dramatic storytelling. What it has to say about the world is expressed entirely on a surface level, through what the characters say, and through the way they behave toward their fellows. And to be honest, such an attitude proves extremely refreshing, in an era when so many movie scripts seem to function primarily as fuel for second-rate thesis proposals and social media bickering.

Remember the days when people used to go to the cinema just because they wanted to see a damn good movie, rather than for the opportunity to bitch about it afterwards in the safety of some judgemental fan culture echo chamber? Well whether you do or you don’t, the people who made ‘Bone Tomahawk’ remember, so do yourself a favour and check whether their film is screening anywhere near you this weekend. As long as you’ve got the stomach for the nasty bits, I’m confident you won’t regret it. I mean, you like good movies, don’t you?


Roger said...


Thanks again for a great review of a great (and as you point out, somewhat confounding) film. May I question your assumption you haven't seen Richard Jenkins in any films before: starting with a career that started in 1985 with Silverado and includes Woody Allen films, Witches of Eastwick and some Eastwood films, he may just be "oh yeah, that guy."

Also, like the mythical "west" you keep referring to (specifically Hawks' and Ford's) the historical reality of cannibalistic savages may function more as symbol than as documentary recreation and as such, in this story with better realized characters we have any reason to expect, allow us to respond more emotionally.

Keep up the great work,


Elliot James said...

I haven't seen the film. There are historical accounts of cannibalism practiced by North American tribes and quite a few books about this. I've never seen a western film that included the subject.