Saturday, October 08, 2016

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: Bone Tomahawk

As a subgenre, the western/horror hybrid is hardly overpopulated. Off the top of my head, I can think of ‘Grim Prairie Tales’, ‘Ravenous’, ‘Dead Man’, ‘Tremors’ and ‘From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter’ – and even then, two of them require a slight tweak of classification to allow for the contemporary western/horror hybrid.

Of this mixed bag of forebears, S. Craig Zahler’s ‘Bone Tomahawk’ owes its greatest debt of honour to Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’. Both are utterly respectful to the conventions of the western – and keyed in to the fact that the best (American) westerns are exercises in classicism – while subversively and unapologetically steering the genre into increasingly challenging and contentious realms.

There is, of course, a case to be made for the kinship of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ to the “acid western” movement, and indeed it offers up imagery as bizarre and visceral as, say, ‘El Topo’ or ‘Straight to Hell’. However, there are long stretches of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ that play out in as thoughtful, measured and traditional a manner as anything by John Ford or Howard Hawks, whereas ‘El Topo’ and ‘Straight to Hell’ scream Jodorowsky and Cox respectively.

(In a weird alternative universe, ‘Jodorowsky and Cox’ is a surrealist private eye drama where the latter films all their cases in increasingly low-budget fashion. But I digress …)

It’s to Zahler’s credit that he embraces traditionalism and slow-burn storytelling for such a long chunk of the two-and-a-half hour running time. For all that ‘Bone Tomahawk’ changes horses in mid-stream a la’From Dusk Till Dawn’, the erstwhile genre touchstones a feint to set you up for the horror-infused sucker punch, it is bound up by Zahler’s self-evident regard for and understanding of westerns to such an effective degree that even when it delivers its most gruelling Deodato-like excesses, it remains at heart a western.

The narrative is uncomplicated and delineates into a prologue and three acts. The prologue has scumbag outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (genre legend Sid Haig) disturbed as they go about their business of waiting for passing travellers to rob and kill; spooked, they stumbled on a burial site kitted out with the kind of weird paraphernalia that makes the twig figures in ‘The Blair Witch Project’ look like Blue Nose Bears in comparison. Buddy is summarily killed by an unseen assailant while Purvis makes good his escape.

Act one introduces us to the small and spectacularly ill-named town of Bright Hope and sets up its residents, most prominently Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), Deputy Kory (Richard Jenkins), fancy-pants ladies’ man John Brooder (Matthew Fox), working man Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) currently convalescing from a broken leg, and O’Dwyer’s wife Samantha (Lili Simmons), assistant to the town’s dipsomaniac surgeon. These individuals are thrown together when Purvis, assuming Buddy’s name, fetches up in Bright Hope and, showing a disinclination to answering Hunt’s questions, swiftly earns himself a bullet in the leg and a free room at the local jail. Samantha, her boss too incapacitated, is called to tend Purvis’s wound. She never makes it home, one of two people who disappear from town that night while a luckless farmhand is found dead, an arrow nearby.

Act two has Hunt, Kory, Brooder and the still crippled O’Dwyer set out in search of the so-called “Valley of the Starving Men”, acting on information received from a rather westernised Native American Indian resident in Bright Hope who identifies the arrow and warns Hunt and co. that the tribe responsible are cave-dwellers and savages. Over several nights, Hunt and his bargain basement posse contend with a couple of trail bums and their own internal tensions. In act three, they contend with … but that would be telling.

I’m in the odd position of being three-quarters of the way through the inaugural review of 2016’s 13 For Halloween slate, only just getting to the horror stuff, and finding myself compelled to back off so as not to spoil any of the gory delights awaiting those who have yet to discover this offbeat gem. Let’s just say that Zahler eventually casts his ill-matched protagonists into the orbit of an omnivorous tribe who are terrifying in their appearance, communication and casual brutality. And he does so without ever having to fully step outside of the imagery and conventions of the western.

And had Zahler’s facility with the horror film manifested in such fine style, ‘Bone Tomahawk’ could well have been a stone-cold masterpiece. Granted, it only falls short by the slimmest of distances, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the horror elements; the issue is the adagio-like running time (two and a quarter hours) and the time it takes to get to the gruesome bits. Even the slowest of slow-burn horror movies don’t spend more than an hour getting their protagonists into the jaws of the unspeakable, then spend their remaining half hour or so putting them through the ringer. By the time ‘Bone Tomahawk’ cuts loose with the gore, the end credits would be rolling on ‘The Hitcher’ or ‘Wolf Creek’. It’s a minor complaint, though, and I feel I’m carping unnecessarily just by mentioning it. Particularly when so much else coheres – performances, production design, music, cinematography – to such stunning effect.


Samuel Wilson said...

Just saw this today. Haig seemed to be channeling Slim Pickens in that early scene. The deliberate slowness of the build-up makes me think the film has a little Meek's Cutoff in its blood. For all that it is too long but it's a valiant effort in most respects.

Neil Fulwood said...

Good call on 'Meek's Cutoff'. I'd definitely agreed with that.

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