Bone Tomahawk

(S. Craig Zahler, USA, 2015): In a more reasonable world, the novelist, musician and screenwriter S. Craig Zahler’s first feature Bone Tomahawk might have had something like the visibility and profile of The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, Christmas season 2015’s most conspicuous contemporary Westerns, and we might have had the chance to note how strangely this ambitiously eccentric and forcefully realized little movie — made for less than two million dollars on a 21-day shooting schedule — ploughs a dark furrow right up the middle. In this gradually darkening trek onto a frontier where the worst nightmares of tentative civilization come true, both the self-consciously adorned verbal showmanship of Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling chamber western and the extreme elemental survivalism of Alejandro Innaritu’s lavishly over articulated account of the bear-mauled mountain man Hugh Glass are at play. But even allowing for those rather strangely shared crossover characteristics, not to mention the presence of Eight‘s identically bewhiskered Kurt Russell and a common fondness for ejaculatory violence and horrific mauling by beasts, Zahler’s first movie is otherwise utterly and impressively its own thing. This is the west filtered through a splattered, post-apocalyptic horror movie lens, a wilderness that doesn’t leave you for dead after ripping you apart, but eats your flesh and makes tools of your bones.

If we’re being honest about it, the Western hasn’t been in anything but the revisionist business since the 1950s, so it’s now had a longer and richer history of questioning its own original principles than it did reflecting or honouring them, and that tells us something: perhaps it’s a genre that’s fundamentally more comfortable and prone to dismantling the mythic tenets and ideals of America under construction than trusting or believing them. Perhaps that’s the Western’s real purpose, enduring legacy and reason why it both expired as a popular genre but keeps springing back sporadically like a restless corpse: the tale it tells is of a nation born to kill and be killed.

This might also explain why at least one logical endgame of the genre is the frontier configured as apocalyptic horror wasteland, an idea that first crept into the genre as Vietnam indelibly insinuated itself into spectacle of westward expansion into territory where the natives had to be exterminated to make way for manifest destiny, which acquired even more cynicism and deadpan ferocity as it was re-patriated as a European genre, and which likely had to go urban or intergalactic to survive its own drive toward the ledge. When you think about it, the West left itself with pretty much nowhere to go once it accepted there was nothing out there on the range but death and the reckoning of civilization as nothing more than an excuse for letting the inner animal off the leash to feed on anything it wished. As the Western has hinted ever since the first gunslinger hero faded back into the sunset once his civilizing mission was complete, there’s no turning back once you’ve gone that far out on the range.

This is why Bone Tomahawk, which might otherwise be designated as a eccentric hybrid, a mashup of Western and torture-porn horror that’s simply an expression of a cut-and-paste postmodern habit, is actually a logical expression of the genre’s progression, and as kindred to the scorched-earth romantic Western-noir fiction of Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard as it is to the perpetual existential survivalist nightmare of the zombie apocalypse. Beginning with a riff on the corpse-scavenging Gorch brothers in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, wherein cult horror MVP’s Sid Haig and David Arquette slit the throats of wounded men before stumbling onto a site sacred to a tribe of cannibal ‘troglodytes’ who embody virtually every worst fear Western lore ever projected on the Native population whose extermination that could only be comfortably digested if suitably demonized, Bone Tomahawk wears its conviction of hell blowing back with a certainty that permits the kind of languid rumination and slow march to oblivion that means the movie can take whatever sweet time it needs to get there. While some viewers may find the incidents following the opening horrors, in which we are returned to the tiny town of Bright Hope and observe as the town Sheriff Hunt (Russell) assembles a motley posse to retrieve the hostages taken by the cannibal monsters and then embark onto the frontier — only to be systematically stripped of just about everything they’ll need to survive — a discordant shift in tone and pace, it’s actually as endemic to the sunset sensibility of the Western as the landscape itself: no genre was ever as preoccupied with the certainty of death, violence and the inevitable sacrifice to final glory as the Western, and from this it took the deepest drafts of its doomed romanticism. History helped, of course: if we knew that Little Big Horn, the OK Corral or the bank in Northfield, Minnesota was tomorrow’s destination, tonight was in no rush to be over. Marinating in the inevitable is another irresistible frontier  habit.

The journey that takes up most of the movie is both the forestalling of the darkness that can’t be avoided, and the trench in which Zahler digs deeply into his characters while stripping them of most things that might provide light in the falling night. And this is where Zahler provides his cast with the opportunity to do most of the shining, especially the elder pilgrims played by Russell and the extraordinary Richard Jenkins, who together perform a variation on the age-old John Wayne/Walter Brennan range marriage dynamic only made more poignant by the largely unspoken intimation both share of the likely futility of the mission that neither can shrink from because it’s the way of things out here. Although there are only stronger premonitions of the terminal nature of their destination with every step they take, take them they must because really, this is all the west has left. Fate accepted, glory attainable only in surrender.

While the movie provides much by way of keen pleasure even (or indeed because of) it’s blunt shifts in tone from opening violence, absurdist town politics, trying journey to ultimate confrontation in the mountain caves of the terrifying troglodytes — a promise of savagery kept with stunning sincerity — it coheres because the movie’s ultimate logic is inescapable and forgives just about any path taken to its conclusion. Except perhaps one, and it’s a telling one. When trying to suss what they’re up against, the Sheriff summons a character called The Professor (Zahn McLarnon, who played the Native American Vietnam-vet enforcer in the knockout second season of Fargo‘s TV incarnation) in order to get some tribal context for the creatures they’re about to pursue. Providing a distinction between the enemy at hand and any known Native American tribe the Professor has ever known, he also stresses the distinction for these white avengers is likely moot, as their racism isn’t likely to entertain such subtleties.

The gambit may be the most ringingly untuned note Zahler strikes in Bone Tomahawk, because it seems so strenuously and obviously to pre-empt charges of white racism before the race is on. But it also rings so disharmoniously because we never see The Professor again, leaving us with the awkward impression of a disclaimer dropped in the movie in the form of a character. If this struck this viewer as almost sufficiently unforgivable to pull an otherwise formidably thoughtful movie off the rails, it wasn’t just because it felt like a gate-crashing appeasement sop to contemporary sensibilities. It was also because the movie missed a  a prime opportunity here: imagine how the dynamic among the men — one of whom is the proud Indian killer Brooder (Matthew Fox) might have played out if The Professor had been encouraged to come along, if the discussion of racism had been permitted to carry on as the mountain caves drew closer, or even if the Professor had just come right out and said it back in Bright Hope: “The troglodytes are your worst nightmare of every so-called savage you’ve ever imagined. These guys are the monsters you created to justify your own evil.” Good and often outright great as it is, Bone Tomahawk might have just missed masterpiece status when it left that one behind. (Sony)