Bone Tomahawk Feature

Bone Tomahawk Review: Let's Giggle About How Upset We Are

Monday, October 26, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Bone Tomahawk

Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons
Rating: Four and a half stars out of five
Available in limited release and on demand now.

Subtlety is often a virtue in filmmaking. Restraint in an actor is usually preferable to someone going off the hinges. Deftness in shot selection and blocking can tell a story more economically than a bunch of title cards explaining the entire history of the world that led to the events depicted in the movie. But sometimes, going the subtle route is not the right choice. "Usually" is not "always." It would, in fact, mean the death of a wonderful, nasty, awe-inspiring, gut-bustingly funny, gruesome film in Bone Tomahawk.

The Western frontier is a harsh place for anyone in this type of film, but Bone Tomahawk makes every westward step feel like an everlasting march toward Hell. The deeper it goes, the closer it gets to discovering the stuff of nightmares, the most basic elements of what frighten us. But you cannot despair your way through existence. You have to trudge along, find comfort in your observations, humor in the things you cannot fully grasp, and accept that, no matter how ugly, the end will arrive and that's okay. Do what you can to leave a mark on those around you, do the right and respectful thing no matter how difficult, and you might turn out all right. Hopefully better than those on the wrong end of the events of Bone Tomahawk, but that's why movies exist in a heightened reality – they teach us things in metaphorical ways.

And so it is throughout the film. The very first shot is one of the boldest of the year, a look at the messiness of doing evil against another human being. For all the rhetoric about how the right thing is often the hardest choice to make – see the paragraph that preceded this – Bone Tomahawk's opening is a reminder that doing the selfish and ugly thing is something really difficult, too. But the way first-time director S. Craig Zahler stages it involves a heavy dose of detached irony that does not skimp on the harshness of the act, but rather pokes fun at the two men committing it – they must be dimwits to do this to their souls, and that dissonance is inherently entertaining. It is a notion that is echoed many times throughout the film, but it is put in blunt, hilarious, and literal terms as one character yells in traumatized exasperation, “You're all idiots.”

Those idiots are some of the finest produced by the Western genre since The Searchers, a movie whose influence insulates and props up Zahler's film but never holds it back. Patrick Wilson's Arthur O'Dwyer opens the film recovering from a broken leg, a fact he never fails to ignore and the movie never fails to let us forget. His wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons), is their frontier town's doctor, and she gets kidnapped along with a sheriff's deputy and a prisoner she is tasked with treating at the jail by a pack of some of the most brutal cannibals you will find in a borderline mainstream film – they are not, as is explicitly stated in one of the movie's only clunky moments, American Indians but rather something considered more mythic and inhuman despite placing some classical “movie Indian” tropes on them. O'Dwyer enlists the help of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell, doing some of his best work), playing-with-a-few-cards-short-of-a-full-deck Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and local dandy John Brooder (Matthew Fox) to go save her.

The back-and-forth between these men on a mission provides much of the film's comedy. Chicory especially is a fountain of constant, humorous haplessness, always unable to put two and two together or know when to keep his mouth shut, even if his is a sweet pursuit of friendship at all times. O'Dwyer's determination is both harrowing and funny, because he is so ill-equipped to deal with the physical demands of a days-long journey on a barely-healing leg, a visual beat Zahler returns to as punctuation – often with quite different goals in mind, from pointing out the silliness of his pursuit to the horrifying toll such a trip would take on a person – of a scene's outcome. Fox as Brooder is a sly, cocky, slicked-hair know-it-all who really might know it all, and he never lets anyone forget it. And Russell as the de facto leader has a level-headed exhaustion to him, patient but about to reach his limit – he has the look and feel of a grandfather ready to give the grandkids back to their parents after a long afternoon of babysitting.

This humor carries these men through a journey that causes them to reveal what they have already lost in their lives while continuing to take more from them. It is in this middle section where Bone Tomahawk has its only real dragging moment, with some claustrophobic framing going counter to the open spaces these men find themselves in. At times when they should be treated as if they are the only people anywhere, because they are in a realm that buffers the living world and the nightmare of Hell, Zahler goes too tight with his camera and does not highlight the desolate world around them. But this is a hair-splitting quibble (probably more related to the low budget of the picture than any lack of understanding of cinematic language) on the way to a third act that takes a next-level, stomach-upsetting turn.

They reach the cannibals' lair and things get hairy. It does not go well for anyone, but contained within these truly disturbing images is a humanity, a connection between people in crisis. Sheriff Hunt forces himself to witness every detail of a person's death, one of the most upsettingly demeaning deaths ever put on film, simply so he can give comfort to that person until the end. Russell's eyes in this moment show a man shaken to his core in a way he will never recover from. And yet, he finds it within himself to provide more comfort, and shockingly even a little more humor, to Chicory as he tells a story about his inability to understand a traveling flea circus. Hunt shares a knowing wink with another character as they convince Chicory that his theory about magical fleas is correct, because they need to be kinder, more human, than the mythical demons that surround them.

Because what else is there to do in the face of the unspeakable? Bone Tomahawk literalizes the darkness festering inside society. It dives headlong into that darkness, but it never forgets to give full weight to the things that make it palatable and even worthwhile. It uses the tools of myth to teach us about the need to push through every ugly obstacle, but it also lets us know it's okay to laugh at the absurdity of such an act.  

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