Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bone Tomahawk

Based on early word of mouth, I expected Bone Tomahawk (2015) to be the closest we're going to get to a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Bone Tomahawk has its share of horrors, depravity, and violence, and squeamish viewers will no doubt watch many moments with their fingers  over their eyes as characters are shot, stabbed, gutted, scalped, and eviscerated in gory detail.

Bone Tomahawk melds two genres: the Western Movie and the Cannibal Film. The only other movie I can think of to do so is Ravenous, but the movies could not be any more dissimilar. Ravenous is a dark comedy with a supernatural element (eating a person allows you to absorb their strength and heal from mortal injury), a wonky musical score, and a wintery army camp for its location.

By contrast, Bone Tomahawk has practically no music, much less humor (though it has its share), and the hot, blazing sun of dry desert valleys. It's a much more grim film and not "fun" the way Ravenous is. And where Ravenous resembled more of a vampire film (outside villain infiltrates group, turns allies into enemies, etc.), Bone Tomahawk shares a greater kinship with the Italian cannibal flicks and Eli Roth's The Green Inferno: civilized people penetrate a dangerous wilderness and are captured by the savage inhabitants.

The Western elements are more obvious, not just in the expected imagery but also the main plot. Indians kidnap some settlers, and a heroic group bands together to rescue them. That's straight out of John Ford's The Searchers with John Wayne, only this time, the sheriff and his group find themselves in way over their heads, outmatched, outmaneuvered, and outnumbered by a ruthless enemy who knows the terrain better and shows no mercy.

Kurt Russell is in the John Wayne role as Sheriff Frank Hunt. The rest of his makeshift posse includes his backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), experienced Indian killer Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the man in the leg brace, Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) was among the captured.

These characters are straight out of Hollywood's Western legacy. The cannibal tribe emerges from the dungeon. The "troglodytes," as they are referred to, live in a cave, dwell on interlopers, move like wraiths through the shadows, communicate with wolf howls and grunts, and the movie avoids giving us long looks at them. In a hundred years, they could be the mutant family from The Hills Have Eyes. The normal, civilized Western characters have no way of comprehending these monsters.

The violence in Bone Tomahawk is not pretty or glamorized. Usually, it's sudden, out-of-nowhere, and quiet. Many times, it's over before the viewer has a chance to process it, and the effect is jarring, shocking, and disquieting. There's plenty of gore shown on screen and implied off screen (accompanied by sickening sound effects), and most eerily, there's no music accompanying it. We have no choice but to watch.

Performances are mostly strong. Russell embodies rugged authority better than just about anyone, and Jenkins, unrecognizable, convinces as the old timer perhaps a bit too eager to help out. Fox plays the most complicated character; Brooder is the most educated, dressed most fancily, and has a reputation as a ladykiller, but he's also casually racist and eager to kill more Indians (we learn his motivation later). He's the most "civilized" character and embodies some of civilization's worst and best traits.

By default, Wilson has to be the boring lead (kind of a habit for him), notable only for his determination, and Simmons feels too modern with the script giving her too many scolding lines that only serve to offer unneeded exposition.

First-time director S. Craig Zahler crafts some memorable and nightmarish images (like the troglodyte women who are kept blind, limbless, and pregnant) and suspense (I really liked the scene where Wilson desperately reloads as a troglodyte charges). The pace drags though. At more than two hours and ten minutes in length, the movie would have been a lean, mean thriller at the 90-100 minute mark. I get the sense Zahler is striving for epic and lyrical, but sometimes, he pushes over into pretentious.

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