dir. S. Craig Zahler
December of 2015 saw a noticeable revival of the western genre. There was Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”, merely good for a Tarantino film, which is to say that it was still more ambitious and innovative than anything else out there. We also had Alejandro Inarritu’s laughably atrocious “The Revenant”, a dual mountaintop demo reel for Inarritu and DiCaprio that’s far too serious to ever be taken seriously. And who can forget Adam Sandler’s John Sturges (and going back, Kurosawa) retread, “The Ridiculous Six”, which is as horrifying and nauseating as the film that I’m about to sink my teeth into. Get it? Sink my teeth… UGH, moving on.
Sandwiched in between was the more quiet release of “Bone Tomahawk”, a western/cannibal horror/dark comedy crossbreed from first time author-screenwriter-musician turned filmmaker S. Craig Zahler. Now, allow me to just pause here for a moment. Muse on that. Laugh if you will. On the long list of endangered cinematic hybrids “The Searchers” meets “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is on the bottom in regards to urgency. But brace yourselves, because this is where things get weird: the film works. Now for the clench: it works really damned well! As well as any film with such preposterous and implausible goals can. To work within any one of those genres is a miracle. “Bone Tomahawk” succeeds at all three, giving proper service to each while weaving them together in a way that feels organic. Simply, it takes the best of the western genre, the best of the horror genre, and splashes them into a mixing bowl with a pinch of black laced humor. At times the film feels as authentically western as anything from John Ford and at others, as bloody distrusting as anything from Eli Roth. Zahler bounces between genres and tones like a classical musician fancifully humming their way through a Tchaikovsky piece. While his right hand is busy capturing the mood and mechanics of the old west, his left is tightening around our throat. It’s a great case of the right hand and the left hand working in perfect harmony. All the more impressive because “Bone Tomahawk” happens to be the film debut of the 43 year old author and former screenwriter. Yet, It has all the assured confidence of someone who was born to make movies. If it’s any indication at all, Zahler is someone to keep your eyes on. Charming yet strange, funny yet horrific, and performed to near perfection, “Bone Tomahawk” is a lush oasis in the parched desert of today’s horror cinema.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t even aware of S. Craig Zahler until “Bone Tomahawk”. I guess he’s been cutting his teeth for years. With 4 novels and 1 screenplay under his belt, as well as a slew of music albums and a short lived career as a cinematographer, Zahler is perfectly representative of those singly talented artists who just happen to fall by the wayside. Upon reading some of his stuff it’s easy to see why. His writing is brilliant, yes, but it’s also incredibly tough. His second novel, “Wraiths of the Broken Land”, begins with a scene of an enslaved prostitute extracting a dead baby turtle from her… Well, I won’t go into specifics, but Zahler describes the withdrawal as, “like a pearl from an oyster.” He has an unflinching way of depicting stark brutality that’s a tonic in comparison to today’s torture-porn era, but not the kind that plays well with a major audience. His bloodiest scenes are also his saddest. Gone is the sadistic glee of something like a “Saw” film. In one of the most memorable horrors of “Bone Tomahawk”, which comes near the end, Zahler films it with an agonizing indifference. Almost as if he’s daring us to keep watching like a twisted staring contest. He simply allows the camera to just stand back and capture every scream and… Again, I’ll curb myself from describing the scene in greater detail. To give it to you now, in full, may scare the unexpected reader away (just know that it involves some cannibals turning a man into a Thanksgiving wishbone, just short of making a wish, and in a way that will have the male members of the audience in particular squirming). Surprisingly though, Zahler is also a very droll writer, finding dark humor in the darkest recesses of our minds. Sometimes his dialogue recalls the irrelevant pop-poetry of Quentin Tarantino. After our characters are told that the cannibals avoid eating African American flesh, one dryly wonders aloud, “do they think they’re poisonous?” Or at another point, in the midst of a horrific sequence, the bumbling town deputy, Chicory (played to the nines by the always-great Richard Jenkins), trails off on a monologue about a flea circus that he once saw. He ponders on whether it was real or imaginary, the hearing capability of fleas. He concludes with, “I believe those fleas were alive AND talented.” When I first heard those words I wanted to stand up and clap, or at the very least, tip my hat to Zahler. This is the kind of dialogue that should be hung on walls. Perfectly offbeat and joyfully unexpected. Even without the before-knowledge, it’s easy to get the sense that the screenplay was written by an author. Now, that can be taken one or two ways. I, however, mean it as a compliment. The dialogue here isn’t just perfunctory. There is a real love and passion for the verbal interplay between characters.
The plot is quite simple and one that you’ve most likely seen before in some iteration. Paying homage to a decades worth of Indian captivity stories, not least of which is “The Searchers”. It’s dangerous territory for a film released in 2015. Something that Zahler is well aware of and was surely the motivation behind a sore-thumb scene that makes it perfectly and abundantly clear that the cannibal clan attacking our protagonists ARE NOT Indians. Rather, troglodytes. Inbred cave dwellers who are essentially the old-west version of the Leatherface family. For a film that depicts graphic violence on scale that hasn’t been seen lately it feels like a slightly toothless move, but whatever, PC police on patrol. It’s in stark contrast to the 70’s films that Zahler was obviously influenced by – films like “Cannibal Holocaust”, “Cannibal Ferox”, and “Eaten Alive”, which are horrifyingly racist, back when Indians were fair game as movie villains. I wouldn’t call it a ‘flaw’, per say, just a plot detail that shouldn’t be overlooked. In “The Green Inferno”, Eli Roth’s unsurprisingly lousy cannibal genre retread, released the same year, the featured Indigenous Amazonian tribe is depicted as hungry-for-flesh, sure, but also decidedly Indian. Is it racist? You bet! But if you’re going to throw-back to films as notorious as “Cannibal Holocaust”, you have to take it warts and all. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, I understand Zahler’s impulse in putting up the protective PC-barricade, but it doesn’t really make for the most compelling western. The cannibals feel less like a primitive people with their own customs and more like mindless movie monsters akin to Romero’s zombies. Nearly absent is the Cowboy/Indian tension that exists in more classic period films. It kind of diminishes the antagonists a bit when we realize that there isn’t a battle of land, ethics, or tradition at stake, but simply mutant flesh-eaters hungry for humans. I guess I didn’t really need a layer of historical subtext in my western/cannibal horror/comedy film, but it would have been nice. At least some motivation. Didn’t the classic Universal monster films show how much better the horror can play when we understand the monsters?
That being said, the way that Zahler handles the troglodytes is quite effective, and brings to mind more shrewd horror films like “Jaws” or “Alien”. We are introduced with a scene that feels slyly tongue-in-cheek. It’s pretty much the most cliché stinger style opening imaginable. Two dimwit characters accidentally stumble across a burial site and it doesn’t take a genius to deduce what happens next. The dialogue is laced with what feels like some obvious horror send-up. Upon hearing an ominous noise one ponders that it’s simply the gust. Later when the noise resurfaces, but much louder, the other remarks, “If that was a gust, then it learned an instrument!” The scene is also very self-aware in the casting of the two murderous morons. We have Sid Haig, horror veteran and Rob Zombie favorite, and David Arquette, who stared in the only other western/cannibal/comedy crossbreed that I can recall, “Ravenous”. It’s a charming opening that pays as much respect to the horror genre as it does rib it. Mostly in regards to the idiotic choices that are often made by the characters. Even without the 1890’s context, one gets the sense that these two haven’t seen much horror movies, as five minutes in they’ve already managed to break all the survivor rules in the book (just short of saying, “I’ll be right back!). This is where you start to notice Zahler’s dual passion for the western and horror tropes that he’s playing with. For soon after he brings things to a leisurely stroll to bask in some nice period-era veneer. Think David Milch, but with a significantly lesser amount of profanity (which, granted, is just about anything). The cast are all exceptional and relish the opportunity to chew on some arty, highly stylized dialogue. Kurt Russell stars as the honorable Sheriff Hunt, in his first western role since 1993’s “Tombstone” and his best performance since even longer. He’s as good here as he was in “The Hateful Eight”, and sporting an even more impressive mustache and beard combo (though not quite “The Thing” level impressive). It’s a joy having him back in the saddle and will bring a smile to the face of any western aficionado. Equally as welcome is Matthew Fox (who’ll forever be known as Jack Shephard to Losties like myself) as the vain and egotistical Brooder, who in a quiet performance, lives up to his name. It’s great to have Fox back on the screen and in a role of some substance. Patrick Wilson has never been better as the crippled Arthur. We can feel his mounting frustration and impotence, both at being crippled and at having to tame his emotions in the quest to save his wife. But it’s Richard Jenkins, mentioned above, who steals the show. His performance as Chicory is sympathetic, sad, humorous, and all around fantastic. The patient chemistry shared between him and Sheriff Hunt is understated but also quite poignant. There is a palpable bond between them. What is it? Respect? It’s feels akin to that but more nurturing. You can tell that there’s a long, unwritten history between the two. It’s great stuff! The only real miscast of the film is “Banshee” star Lilly Simmons as Arthur’s wife, Sam. It’s hard to shake the feeling that she just walked out of a high school period-piece play. Not only does she look too modern (or hot, if you will) for the role but she lacks the naturalistic line delivery of her co-stars. Whereas Russell and Jenkins growl their words like two grizzled pros, Simmons often gives the impression that she’s reciting lines from a cue card held just off-screen.
But for the most part the cast is game. For “Bone Tomahawk” they HAD to be game. A great deal of the film rests purely on the back-and-forth between characters. We get two horror scenes up front (the aforementioned opening and the grisly death of a stable boy) before slowing down to what is essentially a road-trip movie (well technically ‘horse-trip’, but same mechanics). If I had to denote the percentage that “Bone Tomahawk” gives to each genre, I’d say 80% western and 20% horror. For the entire middle of the film we follow the makeshift posse as they ride and talk, and camp and talk. It’s a testament to the dialogue that the film never feels it’s length. There is plenty of frontier wisdom. When spoken through Zahler’s dialect a lot of it feels almost philosophical. Some of the dialogue is riddled with implications of masculinity, as when Chicory challenges Brooder’s vast yet arrogant knowledge, to which Brooder observes that he’s the only one out of the group never to have been married. “Smart men don’t get married.” he concludes. Chicory shrugs, not being able to argue with the logic. And some of the dialogue is wholly irrelevant. In one diatribe Chicory contemplates the best way to read while enjoying a bath, so as not to get the pages wet. It’s not just quirky for the sake of it. There is a technique to Zahler’s whimsy. He lulls us into a sense of calm. Towards the end of the film I found that I had nearly forgotten all about the troglodytes. Zahler dedicates an unusual amount of time to the development of the characters. You get wrapped up more in their survival quest. When the cannibal creatures do finally appear on-screen it catches you completely off-guard. There is a lingering sense of dread throughout but when things go from John Ford to Eli Roth in the blink of an eye, it’s cover-your-eyes level scary. A lot of the impact is directly related to the time spent expanding the multi-dimensional characters. The last twenty minutes of film are some of the most gruesome and sickening of all grand guignol style horror. There are two scenes in particular that will test even the most cast-iron of stomachs. Trust me, and I’ve been around the block, it’s pretty heavy stuff in terms of horror. It’s not Ruggero Deodato having a live turtle sliced up on-screen, but it’s far from the silly video game gore that you see in most of the modern horror output. There have been other contemporary horror films lately that have taken gore to new heights. The “Evil Dead” remake or “Hostel: Part 2” for example. However, the violence in those movies clearly crosses the divide from ‘real violence’ and into ‘movie violence’. So overdone that it causes you to squirm and giggle in equal measures. Zahler dishes out his bloodshed so rarely and so effectively that I can’t imagine anyone enjoying it. Admiring it, perhaps, but only on a technical level. “Bone Tomahawk” just proves that when you come to care about the characters, those kinds of scenes are no longer fun. As a post-script it should be observed that Zahler makes ‘great’ (I guess is the right word?) use of practical effects. It’s an odd compliment to bestow upon a film, that the gore looks incredibly realistic. Though I guess if I’m going to have to see a man’s innards splatter upon the ground, I’d prefer them not be crummy CGI.
“Bone Tomahawk” finds Zahler constantly walking on a tightrope without a support pole. Spectacularly, he never falls, though, occasionally he does falter. Plenty of my critiques are petty, such as the PC-neutring of the cannibal Indian fable, or the casting of Lilly Simmons. However, some are more critical. The ending in particular feels as rushed as a college essay churned out an hour before class. For a film that so cleverly blends the horror and the western genres, the resolution comes with the most banal and cliché elements of both. It wouldn’t be as detrimental if the entire film didn’t feel like a slow-burn build up to a rather lacking climax. One gets the sense that Zahler didn’t quite know exactly how to end his film and just had Arthur blast his way to a conclusion (though sadly, we never get to see the oft-mentioned but never shown Chekhov’s dynamite put to use). This Includes having the cannibal clan fall for the dumbest look-over-here trick in the book. It also doesn’t help that when we are finally re-united with Sam she seems less traumatized by her ordeal and more mildly worried. Simmons didn’t need to go full-blown Marilyn Burns with her performance, but you know… something would have been nice. After delivering such ominous and eerie set-up, the payoff just feels like the kind of uninspired action ending that we’ve seen countless times before. Also, visually, the film often wears it’s budget and time restraints on it’s sleeve (the crew had only 21 days to complete filming!). Zahler makes the bold choice to never shoot in close, every shot being medium-long, long, or extreme. Which is fine, but he lacks the panache to really pull it off. He just doesn’t have the pana-glamour magnificence of something like “The Assassination of Jesse James” nor the claustrophobic chamber style of something like “Meek’s Cutoff”. What we’re left with is something in between. There are occasionally stunning images. The troglodytes’ lair for example, which is right out a Ralph Bakshi fever dream. Or a beautiful shot of Sheriff Hunt and Chicory wearily approaching the towering white doors to the barn where the young stable boy was just killed. Incredibly effective too is the color palette. The sun glares down, more white than yellow, as unsaturated and bleached as human bone. Whereas most horror films hide their terror in as many dark shadows and night skies as possible, it’s refreshing to see one that takes place under the sinister glow of the sun. It makes it much more unexpected when the monsters come. But for the most part the images are frequently flat and uninspired. As a writer, Zahler has his practice down to near perfection, but as a filmmaker, he could mature a lot visually. I would have loved to see a greater attempt made to film the stark western desert as a ghastly horror hellscape. Think Sam Peckinpah by way of James Whale. There are traces of it, especially towards the opening and ending, but everything in the fictitious town of Bright Hope (ironically named, ha ha) is as lifeless as a corpse. I was getting heavy Todd Browning “Dracula” vibes, and that’s never a good thing. However as a debut, “Bone Tomahawk” shows more promise and skill than most films made by seasoned directors. So allow to me cap-off optimistically with this: there is room for growth, sure, but whatever Zahler does next, you can bet that I’ll be first in line.
Out of the onslaught of 2015 westerns “Bone Tomahawk” happens to rank as the best. It’s not a perfect film, nor a polished one, but it works to the film’s favor. It feels like an unchained beast; brutal, sickening, and rough around the edges. Horror often works best when it’s uncouth. It’s obviously a passion project from Zahler that was made with care. Far from the cheap cash-grabs that typically fill the theater marquee today. He takes a group of well-drawn characters and drags them through a western odyssey and into the dark heart of horror cinema. It’s not a film for everyone. The violence is graphic and unsettling. Some horror films seem designed for date nights. The killer will pounce up from off-screen. Your date will scream and grab your arm, then laugh. Hey, it’s fun to be scared! I wouldn’t take them to “Bone Tomahawk”. Whatever they had for breakfast may very well end up in your lap. If your first date is to Zahler’s film, I wouldn’t count on a second one. But if you want to see something different, this may be right up your ally. It’s easy to look at “Saw 6” or “Paranormal Activity 4” and bemuse the death of the horror genre. Or at the very least, claim that horror filmmakers have lost their gall. Well here is one that goes straight for the jugular. As a western, as a horror, and as a dark comedy, you just can’t go wrong. How many other films out there can advertise themselves as a good triple-bill? But “Bone Tomahawk” does so much more. Each element enhances the other and the result is a gonzo genre-bender that will be an acquired taste, to be sure, but unlike anything else that you’ve seen lately. So If you have the stomach, Zahler has the guts. Just try not to get any on your shoes.
Rating: B+ (VERY GOOD)