2015. Directed by S. Craig Zahler
The romanticizing of the Western has become a low hanging fruit that films have been attempting to deconstruct for years. While a handful manage to succeed, the majority of these films fail to present any semblance of resonant ideas, let alone understand the concepts they seek to undo. S. Craig Zahler’s harrowing debut feature, Bone Tomahawk begins in an attempt to distance itself from this camp, using a profane marriage of glacial pacing and unrelenting acts of violence to produce a singular, unforgettable film. However, it is this dark design; a seething meditation on masculinity and the Western’s self-aggrandizing of its heroes that completes the cycle, firmly cementing Bone Tomahawk as an near perfect masterpiece of the genre.
Four men set out to rescue a group of townsfolk who have been kidnapped by a cannibalistic tribe on the frontier. The posse features an atypical grouping of gunslingers, one of the many details of Zahler’s potent script that hints at the depth beneath the dusty surface. Each man is representative of the male ego at different stages in life. Patrick Wilson portrays an injured man whose wife has been taken. Young, in love, and fiercely devoted to his wife, Wilson, who is the weakest of the pack if only for screen time, communicates the vibrancy of youth through his labored delivery while courageously displaying the self-doubt that can plague a relationship at its inception. Icon Kurt Russell plays the town Sheriff, a violent, but noble man with an ailing wife. Russell brings his expected level of grit to the role, but it is his candid bravado that elevates his performance to the upper tier of his fabled career. Sheriff Hunt is a man who lives by order and the gun; a willing participant in killing when needed, who has managed to come through a life of gunplay with a grim understanding of the darkness, but also an appreciation for love and the simplicity of life.
Russell is contrasted by Matthew Fox who gives the performance of his career as the town’s mysterious gunslinger, Brooder. Where Russell’s sheriff was able to extricate himself from the darkness, Fox’s gentleman killer has embraced it, wrapping himself in the coldness of death. Some of the best scenes of the film are when the façade of bravery slips; revealing the broken souls behind the mask of machismo and Fox’s understanding of this is a thing of tragic beauty. Prolific character actor Richard Jenkins rounds out the heroes with Chicory, the town’s venerable deputy. Jenkins steals virtually every scene and his exchanges with Russell are a ray of light in the endless darkness of the story. There’s a scene in the bloody final act in which the heroes are in grave peril and Chicory begins to ruminate on the reality of a flea circus. He is joined by the sheriff and both Russell and Jenkins’ intimate understanding of death becomes reflexive of the journey, even more so than the act itself, a feat made possible by Jenkins’ towering performance. He takes what is obviously the comic relief and turns it into a grounded, vulnerable exposition that becomes the surrogate for the audience’s preconceived notions of right and wrong.
Bone Tomahawk’s central theme explores various notions of time. Zahler takes the Western framework, especially The Searchers and separates the story from the hook by grinding the narrative to a turtle’s pace, forcing the characters to become flesh and blood before summarily ripping them to shreds. Where the main characters represent the masculine life cycle, the simple, yet unforgettably brutal story is not only a plausible tale from the past; it is painful reminder that monsters are very real. The pursuit itself is dictated by time, with Wilson’s injured combatant serving as a constant reminder of not only the very real danger but that fate ignores such temporal constraints, dictating death and clemency in an instant. Violence is the medium through which these bleak truths are explored, both in its commission and in its aftermath. The movie is at its best when the guns are holstered, both in the philosophical maze of the second act and the terrifying climax. Men facing creatures outside their understanding is nothing new, however it is Zahler’s understanding of the central conceits of the genre that make this undertaking an uncomfortable itch that the viewer is powerless to not scratch.
Benji Bakshi’s digital cinematography presents an interesting conundrum. The crisp digital shots bring a sense of cleanliness to a dirty world, framing the exterior locales with sweeping wide shots that keep the harriers in focus, offset by blistering oranges and burned browns that hint at the danger that surrounds them. The interior shots, particularly in the beginning have a wooden quality that leaves the eye eager to return outdoors, however, this only lasts for a few previous moments of set up. Chantal Filson’s rigorous costume design is the final piece, using period vintage in creative combinations to solidify the symbolic representations of the gunmen and contrasting them with the sparse, totemic appearances of the cannibals.
Available now on Amazon Prime, Bone Tomahawk received Independent Spirit Award nominations for Zahler’s screenplay and Jenkins’ performance. This is a vicious film that will frustrate some viewers with its fatigued pacing and downright nasty portrayals of violence. If you can get past these two issues, there is a wealth of splendor underneath the gory veneer. If you’re of strong stomach and are interested in a unique Western film that will follow you into your dreams, Bone Tomahawk is the experience you’re looking for.
Highly. Highly Recommend.