Bone Tomahawk (2015)

*. Not at all what I was expecting. For some reason I was thinking this was going to be a western-horror-comedy. I honestly don’t know why. But keep in mind that writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s only previous film had been The Incident and the mix of genres here sounded funny. Cowboys vs. Cannibals? It seemed improbably loopy.
*. And as the film starts I was still thinking along these lines. Sid Haig? I like Haig, but he’s an oddball who’s usually cast in oddball parts. And Patrick Wilson has always struck me as an actor more suited in lighter roles too. I thought his comic touch was a big part of what made those Conjuring movies as good as they were.

*. I was entirely wrong. There are no laughs in Bone Tomahawk. Instead the presiding spirit seems more like Cormac McCarthy, with its heroes being broken on an odyssey into the heart of darkness, albeit without any literary style points. I suspect that Zahler had McCarthy in the back of his head somewhere though.
*. Without more of a sense of style, literary or visual, the movie does tend to regress to contemporary horror standards. It’s talkier and more character-driven, but in the end there is the same nihilistic bleakness and emphasis on suffering and cruelty. As a horror movie it isn’t scary or suspenseful in the slightest. Its horrors are only there to be endured.
*. Almost as surprising as the tone of the film is its pace. Bone Tomahawk is what is sometimes referred to as a “slow burn.” At least, people use the term slow burn when they don’t want to say a movie is boring. Since I didn’t think Bone Tomahawk was boring, even at over two hours running time, I’ll stick with slow burn.

*. One moment in particular captured this for me. As Patrick Wilson is gamely limping his way along some rough terrain he stumbles and almost falls. The camera then just watches him as he stands, leaning on his crutch, getting his breath. By my count this shot is held for 20 seconds. That’s a very long time to hold a shot where nothing is happening, but I think Zahler just wants us to experience how it feels for Wilson’s character and maybe invite us into his head in a quiet moment.
*. Another thing about such a deliberate pace is that it makes the eruptions of violence more striking. Even when you can see them coming (does the black guy really have to be the first guy who gets it? even in the Old West?) they still have the power to shock. Though I wouldn’t call Bone Tomahawk a particularly gory film. There is one scene in particular that is horrific and it stands out not just for being an exception to most of the rest of the movie but for being presented in such a realistic and even understated way. I mean, I don’t think there’s even a score here.
*. Speaking of understated horrors, it’s easy to miss the very brief scene as the survivors are escaping the cave where they pass by the breeding stock of the cannibals. Those are not corpses, and they remain the most striking image for me in the entire film. But they are observed without comment.

*. I think Bone Tomahawk is a good movie, and I wouldn’t call it slow. I would, however, characterize it as stiff. There’s an excessive formality to the proceedings that covers everything from the script to the set design. In terms of the former, apparently the film’s script was shot exactly as written, with no changes or improvisations. In general, I don’t advise this. Actors should be encouraged to take some liberties in appropriate places in order to make things more natural.
*. Then there is the film’s look. None of the interiors here look very lived in. In part this may be attributed to it being a time when the Old West was still new. And maybe Hope is a new town. But even the bar looks like it has a floor you could eat your dinner off of, and the homes seem absolutely perfect, with no rough edges. Then when we get to the main fire pit of the cannibal cave things get even tidier. Nothing looks out of place, and the floors appear to have been freshly swept. Hell, even after the big butchery scene there is no sign of blood on the ground later. Who is keeping this cave so clean?

*. Come to think of it, even the exteriors look tame. I kept thinking that if the camera had panned just a bit more in one direction we’d be seeing cars tearing down the freeway, or an expensive modern home nestled in the hills. And I’m not saying that because I know it was shot just outside of Los Angeles. I made a note about it before I watched the accompanying featurette on the DVD.
*. The point is that this kind of a look, which has more to do with design than photography, seems out of place in a movie that is all about a descent into ultimate savagery and wildness. It’s a vision of the West that’s too darn domestic.
*. For a tribe of cannibals living somewhere out in the desert, they all seem remarkably well-fed. I guess the eating is good picking off settlers.
*. I had one fairly big problem with the story. The three able-bodied men are bushwhacked by the tribe and killed and captured, while the badly injured one, despite talking to himself, falling down hillsides, and even firing his gun off several times, sneaks up on them unawares? How did that work? And this is not a minor point to quibble over. It’s absolutely key to the plot and it makes no sense to me.
*. That said, I found Bone Tomahawk fresh and mostly enjoyable. The cast is wonderful and I think Zahler did manage to come up with something that was, for me at least, quite unexpected.

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