by Patrick Bromley
Bone Tomahawk isn't really a horror movie until it totally is. The debut feature from writer/director S. Craig Zahler is a genre lover's dream, existing at the intersection of John Ford and Ruggero Deodato. It is a western so savage that it may alienate many a traditional western fan. It's also fucking awesome.
Until things really start to go bad, it's one of the best classical westerns made in a long time. Patrick Wilson plays Arthur O'Dwyer, an everyman in the town of Bright Hope healing from a broken leg whose doctor wife is abducted by what is believed to be Indians. A rescue party is formed with Arthur, a prim, cocky gunfighter by the name of Brooder (Matthew Fox), Bright Hope's sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his simple, elderly deputy Chicory (the great Richard Jenkins), who set out on a dangerous journey in search of the abducted. What they find is far worse than anyone could have imagined.
The second and longest section of the movie recalls The Searchers as the characters traverse the hostile landscape in search of rescuing family kidnapped by some sort of "other." All four leads really shine here, each bringing something different and useful to the group with the exception of maybe Wilson, whose broken leg proves a huge hindrance but everyone implicitly understands that it's pointless to talk him out of making the trip. One of my favorite things about Bone Tomahawk is that the four leads are all meant to represent different facets of archetypal masculinity but that each is essentially decent and respectful; even Brooder, the arrogant racist, is allowed to be more hero than heel. I love that they are all practical in their decision making and how even though they lose their temper with one another at times, they immediately apologize to one another and acknowledge their mutual respect. This is as steely and tough as movies get, and yet Zahler retains a real sense of warmth and humanity throughout.
Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox can't really hold a candle, comparatively speaking, but they do good work with what they are given. Wilson gives good everyman as a guy thrust into being a hero by necessity, and I especially love the way his broken leg is a constant obstacle throughout the movie. Not only is it a reminder of his weakness relative to the other characters, but a reminder of just how hard life could be in the Old West. Making that trip with a broken leg would be difficult in 2015, but back then it was a near impossibility.
The Green Inferno, rendered far more powerful because they aren't being undermined by poop and masturbation jokes. It's incredible stuff, suggesting that S. Craig Zahler's heart lies as much with old-school oaters as it does with a specific subgenre of '70s horror.
Bone Tomahawk won't be for everyone, but it's one of those movies that's really for the people that it's for. It's a great western before becoming an unrelenting horror film and would be impossibly grim if it wasn't also so human. I don't know how often I'll return to it -- the pacing is deliberately slow and the scope feels smaller than the traditional western -- but Zahler has made a confident, exciting directorial debut that may very well land on my list of favorite movies at year's end.
It really is that good and I generally do not like Westerns. Hard to believe this is the director's debut as the film looks freakin' beautiful.ReplyDelete
I really can't wait to see this. Kurt Russell continues to be the most badass actor in Hollywood. I love that man.ReplyDelete
Also, note that Russell's mustache is so incredible, it's making two film appearances this year.Delete
He was growing it for The Hateful 8 when he signed on for this film.Delete
I got to meet Sid Haig a couple of weeks ago at Fear Fete and he talked about this a little during his Q&A. I'm very much ready for it.ReplyDelete
OH MAN. I feel hyped.ReplyDelete
You've been on a roll with the good movies - I seem to recall quite a few bad ones in a row not long ago. This really sounds amazing - the cast alone has me sold - I hadn't even heard of it until a few days ago.ReplyDelete
That poster is fucking beautiful. Even if I don't like the movie I might want that on my wall.ReplyDelete
Hey thanks for reviewing this I probably wouldn't have watched it without you saying how good it is so I checked it out and absolutely loved it. A western horror movie is right up my alley so it hit every sweet spot for me. Awesome flick. Can't wait to see Kurt Russell do this again in Hateful Eight.ReplyDelete
You sold me. Just another reason why I love this site. I probably would have never heard of thisReplyDelete
Gonna check it out
Holy shit how did I miss this movie....Kurt Russell Western fuck yes! Gotta track this down immediatelyReplyDelete
I finally got around to watching this and I enjoyed it immensely. I think I can easily say it has a spot in my top 10 of the year. You said it all in your review, the script is great, the actors are great, the direction is great, and the characters are unique and memorable. As a huge western and horror fan, this movie is just right for all my moods and a great movie on its own. We really do need more horror westerns, perhaps that's can be a new wave. And how the hell does Kurt Russell still look that young? Judging by this performance, I would say he has another 30 years of action roles in him. I'm also super excited to see what S. Craig Zahler does next. Thanks for the recommendation!ReplyDelete
Thank you for the recommendation on this one. I came to your website when I started looking for a decent movie podcast (the one that I listen to on a still fairly regular basis is torturous but, in fairness, did also give Bone Tomahawk a good review). Both the podcast and the website are extremely impressive and as a reader and listener, thank you for that. This movie was terrific and the way I came to see it through your recommendation reminded me of how I (and perhaps a lot of us) came to see movies in the 90's where all it took was one good review for a reliable source to spark the interest and give it a go. I, sadly, have fallen trap to the rotten tomatoes dictatorship where, if a movie does not achieve a certain score, I'll give it a miss. If something like that was around 20 years ago then I never would have seen and, subsequently, loved films like Tree's Lounge, Lone Star, Box of Moonlight, Living in Oblivion etc. This film was definitely in my top 10 for the year and I have recommended it to many people subsequently. For me, the question of how this did not get a theatrical release pales in comparison to the question of how the fuck did this film get made in the first place (and with such stellar cast). Delighted that it did and Patrick Wilson's portrayal has to be the most convincing depiction of a man trying to stumble on with a broken foot ever recorded. Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins were typically brilliant and even the acting in the small parts given to Sean Young, David Arquette and Zahn McClarnon was excellent. The shocking standout for me, though, was Matthew Fox. I had no idea that he had it in him. He was tremendous and was the perfect conduit for the script's seeming desire to want to convey a lot with just a few words or a collection of gestures. Very much looking forward to see what this director comes up with next.ReplyDelete
Finally got around to watching this. I avoided reviews and basically only knew that 1: it had cannibals and 2: it was being described as a western that turns into horror. I agree with one of those things and I liked it a lot save for one plot convenience. I'm interested if anyone else shares my opinions...ReplyDelete
SPOILERY SPOILERISH SPOILERS
This movie was horror from the beginning and here's why. The movie opens with two men wandering into a creepy predicament, one is shot with an arrow, the other flees the scene. It's the moment when Arquette's character flees that we see, in the background, a dark frighteningly-larger-than-Sid-Haig ominous figure finishing the job. If you look closely you can see him being disemboweled. Then the title appears. We have been presented with a pre-title sequence death. Not long after the main characters being established, a second death happens, setting the plot into motion. Of course the last 45 minutes reveal so much more horror and I could go on and on about how effective each attack is and how wonderfully designed and presented are the troglodytes and their violence. This movie felt to me like a horror set in a "western" time period. The middle section definitely feels and looks like a western but we still have the lingering horror of the unknown state of Lady O'Dwyer and the Deputy. I was curious if my knowledge of the existence of cannibals in the film was the reason for setting the tone from the beginning for me, but upon retrospection, I feel as if they had been kidnapped by an unknown band of no-gooders and then we discover what they actually are then it could have been a western that takes a turn but it's that pre-title sequence that sets the creepy tone from the start, and it's the professor's description of the cave-dwellers before they set off on their journey that had it hitting the horror notes for me from the start.
My beef with the plot convenience is simple and as follows. While I liked it from start to finish I am having a hard time believing Samantha would have been in such good shape considering how the canni-men treated their own ladies: eye-stabbed incapacitated baby-vessels. Please don't misunderstand, I was not hungry for more brutality towards women. And I don't need every movie to be steeped in nihilism, but in a movie that is essentially a bleak and horrific depiction of the results of manifest destiny (Samantha makes a comment accentuating this) the conclusion feels a bit convenient to me. If anything had happened to her I would have been devastated as a viewer and I believe a more daring storyteller would have written a different fate for her. I'm not saying she should have died. What I'm saying is that every person in that cave was fucked up and she had dirt on her dress. It concluded as "hero saves princess" for me.
If anyone is reading this please share your thoughts. And please change my mind because it's the only thing that kept this from being a perfect movie-watching experience for me. Every other aspect of the film was tip-top-notch. I've seen it once and plan to revisit it.
Here's the problem, and for the record I completely agree that the film was Horror from the beginning, the problem though is that we're wrong. I like to believe what the writer/director tells me about his movie. Sometimes I think it's bullshit PR but with a smaller movie such as this and a struggling writer/director who after 13 scripts or so finally got one made, I believe him. In a couple interviews I listened to and read, he explains that he has mostly written Westerns or Crime Dramas. He was explicitly asked if this was a Horror film and he said absolutely not. He wrote it and filmed it as a Western. Paraphrasing, he says "Yes, there are horrific elements but it was always meant as a straight up western. Horror fans have seemed to take ownership of the film though, which is cool, but it wasn't the intention." Take that for what it's worth, but I believe it. It doesn't change my opinion of the film, which I loved (was on my top ten last year) but it does change the way I view it knowing the perspective of the author's intention.Delete
I'm going to dip below the surface here. This is his first feature as a director and he wants to be taken seriously. I can't tell a director what his attentions were but I can point out that a "western with horrific elements" is not a "straight up western." I will also add that if your narrative is founded on horrifying circumstance with horrific elements then you have told a story of horror. Stories of horror can exist within ANY context and narrative. The structure even follows that of a monster movie and reminds me of Jaws. We get a kill at the beginning, another gutted victim in a stable, brief glimpses of the monsters, then a fabulous final act where the monsters are confronted. Remove all the graphic violence and you still have a horror here. He's woven this perfectly into a "Cowboys vs. Indians" frontier world. He's made a brilliant Horror/Western mashup.Delete
This feels to me like he's trying to wade over to the deep end as if Horror is the kiddie pool. Of course, there is plenty of urine and excrement floating around over there, so I get it. He slyly distances himself further by saying that it's cool horror fans have taken ownership of the film, thus "admitting" he's not of that camp. I'm not "taking ownership" as a fan of horror, I'm calling it like I see it. For what it's worth, he also wrote Asylum Blackout, which I would consider Horror as well. It's not PR, it's please-take-me-seriously-ese. He's written two horror movies and probably wants to be considered more than a Horror Filmmaker. I'll repeat, I get it. And I'm not calling bullshit, however, we're not wrong either.
*intentions. Not attentions.Delete
I knew about him writing Asylum Blackout also when going in to seeing Bone Tomahawk so, yeah, it's possibly bullshit. As I mentioned though, I like to believe what the director/writer says though. I swear Krampus was cut to hell and was supposed to be R Rated, Dougherty says the exact opposite so, okay, I'm believing him. All in all it doesn't matter, I loved BT and agree it's a brilliant Horror/Western.Delete
Yep. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. Bone Tomahawk exists and I'm glad it does. However, if he genuinely intended on making a straight up western, he failed. That's not to say I think he's a failure, by that I mean his comments come across as either disingenuous or delusional. But alas, there is a stigma with the label of horror many directors want no part of. He has made a movie that is clearly influenced by horror tropes and contains beats within the narrative. Denying such things won't make the movie any better. It's already outstanding and I can't wait to see what he does next.ReplyDelete