by Jason Callen
It was another nice year for cinema’s oldest, most dependable genre: the western. The Revenant, for better or for worse, is a legitimate blockbuster, Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is his best work in years, and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja and John Maclean’s debut feature Slow West are two of the year’s best films. Add to this (by no means all inclusive) list another strong debut feature, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. This film starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, and Evan Jonigkeit was the biggest surprise of the year for me. I avoid reviews and trailers as much as possible when I’m interested in seeing a film but of course you hear things. What I heard in this case was that it was a horror/western. Great, I love hybrids, whatcha got? So I went in expecting much more of an exploitation film. A comically violent cold open featuring Sig Haig and David Arquette incidentally desecrating the grave of a cave dwelling species of natives didn’t do anything to dissuade from that expectation. But then something strange happened; the movie became very civilized.
The events of the cold open lead us to the town of “Bright Hope”, where people are nothing, if not civilized. When Arquette’s decidedly uncivilized Purvis arrives he is immediately questioned by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), who even has to inform him that “in civilized towns you look a man direct in the face when you talk to him.” Things don’t go Purvis’ way and Hunt is forced to shoot him, which he does to his leg, because he is civilized. The doctor’s drunk so his assistant, Samantha (Simmons), tends to the wound in the jail. At some point Samantha, Purvis, and Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit) are kidnapped and a stable boy is brutally murdered. A murder and an abduction? Sounds like time for one of the most classic of all western tropes: the search party.
So he knows what he’s up against, Hunt asked a local Native American (Zach MacClarnon) to identify the arrow made with a bone tip that was discovered. He confirms they are from a tribe of savage, cannibalistic troglodytes (his word). This is convenient for the screen writers as much as it horrifying for the characters. By making the antagonist cannibals the film sidesteps having to worry about their representation or showing them any sort of empathy. These are not Native Americans. In fact the only native in the story is the aforementioned one played by MacClarnon and known as ‘The Professor.’ He is well dressed, well-educated and clearly an asset to the sheriff. Very civilized. He’s also smart enough not to get involved with the search party.
The party will include Hunt, Samantha’s husband Arthur (Wilson) who has a broken leg but refuses to be left behind, back up Deputy Chicory (Jenkins), and Brooder (Fox), a former suiter of Samantha’s who may have been a soldier of some kind and claims to have killed dozens of Indians. They set out and for almost the entirety of the film we do not come in contact with the troglodytes. Instead the movie focus on the clash between these civilized men and the wildness of the frontier. Wildness that includes the acts of other, less civilized men. Within the group only Brooder (Fox) shows signs of moral ambiguity and even that is later shown to be justified. These men are not to be questioned. While they might question themselves and each other, we are not meant to. These are our heroes and at their very worst they are nothing compared to their subhuman enemy.
Zahler conveys this test of civility and strength primary through dialogue. Not through needless exposition that delineates our every thought and feeling but instead through the overall tone of the dialogue and quality of speech. Even the somewhat dim Chicory (played to perfection by Richard Jenkins) has his moments of eloquence. Given the importance of speech to these civilized men, it is not surprising that Zahler eliminates speech all together from the troglodytes. Instead they communicate through a strange bone whistle that protrudes through there neck, allowing them only screams. It’s a primal metaphor that, while not exactly subtle, is extremely effective, not to mention terrifying. Not only audibly terrifying, which it certainly is, but also terrifying in its implication once the search party locates them; these creatures cannot be reasoned with. No amount of civility or sophistication is going to convince them of anything. What’s left to fight with then? Their wit and will? Their ability to tap into their own savagery? I’ll leave it for you to discover whether any of these are enough to save them.
Many have praised this years The Revenant for it intensity and “realism.” I was taken in by its energy as well but in the end it ultimately fails because of Inarritu’s pretenses. He said “I don’t consider [my] film a Western. Western is in a way a genre, and the problem with genres is that it comes from the word ‘generic’, and I feel that this film is very far from generic.” (Financial Times interview by India Ross). Zahler embraces the history of the western completely and uses it to tell his story of civilization and savagery. The difference is huge. While I liked The Revenant and agree that its technical achievements are quite stunning, after the adrenaline wears off it I wasn’t left with much. It’s themes of manhood, survival and revenge aren’t even as interestingly explored as they are in its predecessor, Man In the Wilderness. But I digress. Bone Tomahawk loves its genres, it needs them. By playing off our knowledge of them the film’s effectiveness is elevated, both in its exploration of theme and its use of technique. I would love to see another western from Zahler but I’m in regardless. Very impressive debut.