Posted by : Patrick | October 26, 2015
Sinking into a comfy padded chair in an suburban café, it’s hard to imagine that there are places where society doesn’t exist, where looking off to the horizon is facing the unknown; the potential for hope maybe, but also for something much worse. In the case of first-time director S. Craig Zahler’s new western, Bone Tomahawk, it’s the latter. Approaching traditional motifs from a slightly different direction, Bone Tomahawk sprinkles a bit of horror into the genre, not shying away from the more grisly struggles of its heroes and villains, set against a stark, open landscape, beyond the reach of any real law other than nature’s. People fear what they do not understand, and a common theme in these films is the raw stress that comes from trying to force a civilized life into an uncivilized world. Stray too far into uncharted territory and you could lose yourself entirely. Order does not come easily to chaos, and that resistance often leads to violent consequences. For those weak of grit, lacking in steely will, without sure footing, the wild frontier can be terrifying insanity, leading to madness and death.
The residents of the “town” of Bright Hope exist on the edge of their known universe, a tiny outpost of scattered buildings populated by cowhands gone for long stretches on cattle drives, leaving the women and a few old-timers to hold down the fort. They have the usual facilities that one would expect in such a place, with a doctor, a stable, a jailhouse, and of course, a saloon. They’ve carved out a nice niche for themselves, where things make sense, but outside city limits is a place where the wild side takes over, where life is both cheap and precious. Blood mixes with dust as highwaymen who will slit a throat for the chance at even a few dollars lurk in the trail bushes, horse thieves sneak up in the dark, and ravenous beasts roam the countryside in pursuit of their next meal. This last is the most frightening, as some of these predators walk on two legs.
When his wife Samantha is kidnapped by some of those predators in a nighttime raid, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) sets out to find her and bring her back, despite the broken leg that held him back from recent wrangling. Joining him are the aptly named Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a man with a taste for fine clothes and dead natives. They are warned that the place they seek is something even local tribes ignore, a place of “troglodytes” who do not abide by normal human customs, or more creepily, diets. Yet set out they must, as each man feels some responsibility for what has transpired. Western honor is a peculiar thing, a romantic code that perhaps keeps these men from slipping into animal instinct, a thin string tenuously connecting them to the evolved culture they’ve left back east for this god-forsaken place. The price for dignity can be high, however, and when these four cross the threshold of their bubble into the savage wilderness, both their humanity and determination will be tested.
Bone Tomahawk takes its time developing these men, and while the languid pacing may be slow for some, the payoff is actually caring what happens to them. That doesn’t mean we get long speeches about past tragedies or defining moments; these people are used to repressing emotion, lest the cruel world use it against them. I loved the terse dialogue, written for characters who don’t mince words or waste breath. There is a poetry to their bluntness, and the quaint formality with which they mind their manners is a nice contrast with the sagebrush, trail dust, and bloody brutality. Of the four it’s Brooder who is the most fascinating, his seemingly dandy vanity masking a calculated pragmatism and skill I did not expect, making me wish the story revolved around him a bit more. Unfortunately, that distinction goes to who I felt was the least interesting of the men, the hobbled O’Dwyer. I’ve never cared to watch people limp themselves through an entire movie, and as they started out, I admit I was hoping the others would push him off his horse and ride away, kicking the story into gear. Maybe if poor Wilson had been freed from his crutch (though it serves the theme well here) he could’ve made O’Dwyer more charismatic, but as it stands he’s only modestly compelling. Russell is rock solid as an aging lawman, and Richard Jenkins supplies some chuckles and philosophy as a man well past his prime in both body and mind, but with the perspective of many years under his belt nevertheless.
What makes Bone Tomahawk stand apart from the thundering herd of works with similar themes is not only the fresh use of sparing horror elements that cast an uneasiness over the whole mission the farther the posse gets from Bright Hope, but also the perspective it takes on successfully overcoming traditional western obstacles. Honor may ease the mind in one’s last few moments on this Earth, but it in itself is not enough to survive. Nor is intelligence. Brooder boasts of being the smartest man amongst them, which may very well be so, but what good will that do him against forces he cannot possibly comprehend and who obey no logic? When a character at one point chides the men for being stubborn and stupid, leading them into this mess, they are missing the point, still attached to the standards of a society whose operations are far away. For each “I told you so”, this person offers zero solutions, having given up long ago, content to simply lay down and die. And that’s the ultimate sin. Stupidity may have gotten us into this, but stubborn will get us out. In the world of Bone Tomahawk, as on the frontier itself, it is pure resolve that is necessary for mankind to sustain itself, a staunch doggedness that obstinately defies a land comprised of devices to kill anything that does not belong in its uncontrolled domain. Those who can ignore the pain of life will be the ones who keep living.
Beautifully photographed and elegantly assembled, Bone Tomahawk is a fresh entry in a once popular genre that even for fans has felt a little stale and formulaic at times, proof that there are still plenty of stories to tell on the plains, and intriguing ways to tell them.
My Rating: 3½ out of 4