Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cowpoke Gumbo: Bone Tomahawk

Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk.

One of the films from 2015 that slipped through the festival circuit and straight to the on-demand market, flying totally under the radar for most moviegoers, also happens to be one of my favourites of the year. It cheers me to know that films like Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russell (wearing his still-burgeoning pre-Hateful Eight power-stache), still have a place in our cinematic ecosystem. Then again, I can’t imagine there ever not being a place for low-budget genre mashup perfection like this, as long as there are weirdos like me for whom Westerns and cannibal gorefests are equally appealing.

Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, sheriff of a small 1890s frontier town called Bright Hope, who is called upon to act when several residents, including town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), are kidnapped. Her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), a former cattle driver with a freshly broken leg, insists on accompanying the rescue party, despite his handicap. They are joined by “backup” deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a doddering widower, and local gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox). Their only information about the kidnappings comes from a local Native man called “the Professor” (Zahn McClarnon), who warns them that their quarry are a splinter group of natives known only as “Troglodytes,” famous for their cannibalistic brutality, living in a settlement five days away from Bright Hope. That’s the setup for Bone Tomahawk, which spends the next two hours slowly and expertly building tensions on the trail until its true nature as a Western-horror mashup (which I’ve seen described as “a combination of an oater and an eater”) is revealed. It’s The Searchers meets Predator, and it is exactly as brutal and beautiful as it sounds.

Two thirds of the film is dedicated to the difficult ride the rescue party takes, made even more difficult when their horses are stolen by a nocturnal raiding party, forcing them to continue on foot – which leads to O’Dwyer separating himself from the group, because he can’t keep pace while hobbling along on his crutch. This is where Bone Tomahawk’s excellent scripting and casting have time to stretch out and luxuriate in the simmering tension between these men, forced together (and apart) by their grim quest. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler fills their dialogue with flowery, period-appropriate language that never sounds unnatural, and allows for some great quotable moments (Brooder shoots a pair of Mexicans who approach their night camp, to the Sheriff’s consternation; a groggy O’Dwyer is roused by the noise and asks “What transpired?” – Chicory’s answer is that “Mr. Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of ‘manifest destiny’”). Characterization is one of the film’s strongest elements, ensuring that each member of the party becomes much more interesting than their initial archetypical roles might suggest. Brooder, for example, is established early on as a dandy, a womanizer, and a braggart, but on the trail he demonstrates an impressive skill set and an iron will, and his usefulness is shown to far outweigh his vanity. Russell’s sheriff is gruff and fond of making grim proclamations, but proves patient, steady, and loyal – qualities which are encouraged in large part by his relationship with Chicory, who is undoubtedly the film’s moral centre. Jenkins, ever the humble character actor, puts in an incredible performance here, making Chicory as competent as he is creaky, an occasionally-irritating chatterbox who nevertheless offers good advice; he’s so lovable, and his friendship with Hunt is so genuine and heartwarming, that he becomes like the dog in the film who you beg the director not to kill. Bone Tomahawk’s tone and pacing make it clear, however, that no matter how much you plead, this story is unlikely to have a happy ending. Their quest is a hopeless one, and more people are likely to die than be saved. And die they do. Oh boy, do they ever.

I mentioned that Bone Tomahawk resembled Predator, and that’s no throwaway reference; the similarities between the two seem less like coincidence and more like deliberate cross-pollination. They’ve both got a band of road-hardened men making their way through hostile terrain while a seemingly supernatural foe lurks over each hilltop, and the Troglodytes, with their bone-white skin, wild hair, and weird throat-pipes, look just the way Arnold’s alien adversary did when they throw back their arms and bellow an otherworldly challenge into the echoing night. Both films also feature a horrifying disrespect for the sanctity of the human body, and the bowel-twisting savagery of the Troglodytes is more than a match for the Predator’s spine-ripping sport. The details of their culture are only ever hinted at by the sparse production design, and they never speak, making them implacable aggressors who neatly sidestep the obvious racial issue by being something more – or less – than human (certainly not Native American, in any case). The main attraction in a cannibal feature like Bone Tomahawk – namely, the gore – is so well executed for such a shoestring picture that the effects actually rival those of the films that inspired it (and made even a salty gorehound like me curl up and cringe). I would go so far as to say that some of the film’s technical failings, like the non-existent score and bland cinematography, are made up for by the excellent makeup and gut-wrenching practical work. They’re really that good, and made even more effective by the sufficient buildup and release of tension the script provides, and the earnest and sympathetic performances of the cast.

If I have a serious complaint about Bone Tomahawk, it’s that it earns a bigger ending than it delivers. I won’t spoil the outcome once the party reaches Troglodyte territory, but suffice it to say that – despite some white-knuckle tension and sudden explosions of frightening violence – it doesn’t quite go far enough. I guess the buildup of the first two thirds of the film had me prepared for a more over-the-top climax, which I think it could easily have gotten away with. Zahler opts for a quieter finale, which is fine, but I won’t lie: I wanted more.

To those with strong stomachs, an eye for fine facial hair, and an ear for fanciful speechifyin’, Bone Tomahawk is a feast of epic proportions. It’s so rare that genre mashups come through the wash as anything other than gimmicky shlock (see: Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens) – and even rarer that they enjoy a confluence of talent like the cast and crew here – so I’m that much more grateful for the gift of this film, which had me gripped from fade in to fade out, and keeps impressing in retrospect with its intelligence and pathos. I can’t recommend it to everyone – Mom and Dad should probably keep this one off the movie night rotation – but if the details I’ve described have captured your interest, rush to your nearest online streaming service or on-demand retailer and show this film the love it deserves. It’s sure to become a new favourite.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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