26 February 2016

Bone Tomahawk review

I've always found it a little strange that people point to the Western as an example of genres dying out due to over-exposure, usually in retaliation to a film based on a comic book being released. Although it's true that the Western isn't as popular as it used to be (with dozens of them coming out each year throughout the 50's and 60's), it also clearly never went away in any meaningful capacity, and recent films such as True Grit, Django Unchained, Slow West, The Salvation and The Hateful Eight have more than proved that there is still value to be found within the genre yet.

Enter Bone Tomahawk, which uses the trappings of the Western to deliver a slow burning and truly disturbing horror film. Set in the late 1800's, we follow a four-man party from the frontier town of Bright Hope as they attempt to find the towns Deputy Sheriff, an injured prisoner and the wife of one of the party, all of whom were taken from the town in the dead of night by members of a cannibalistic, incestuous tribe of cave-dwelling Native Americans.

To get this out of the way early - yes, a film portraying a tribe of Native Americans as cruel, backwards savages is potentially insensitive at best and offensive at worst, regardless of the ways in which it tries to distance itself from a racist cliché that has defined Native Americans in cinema for decades. There are some attempts to make it clear that the tribe our main characters are searching for are in no way representative of other Native Americans (going so far as to have a Native American character refer to the tribe in question as subhuman), but aside from a small amount of dialogue that at least shows the film is aware of the issue here, the worldview and racial politics on display in Bone Tomahawk are surprisingly dated, and it will be interesting to see how people react to a film that feels old-fashioned in this particular way.

That aside, Bone Tomahawk is an almost flawless piece of film making, a smart, measured movie that uses it's lengthy running time and slow pace incredibly well. A common criticism of modern horror films is that they often devolve into "torture porn", extremely graphic violence for the sake of extremely graphic violence that fails to engage the audience, and although Bone Tomahawk does get extremely graphic (and I mean extremely graphic, potentially some of the most harrowing violence I've ever seen in a film), it's also very restrained in how long these scenes go on for, and more than earns the level of gore on display.

A lot of this comes from the way in which director S. Craig Zahler builds tension. Almost as a reaction to the overly signposted jump scares that we see in a lot of horror films, Bone Tomahawk instead ensures that you are as unaware of impending danger as the characters themselves are, making it a genuine surprise when an arrow hits someone from off screen or a previously unseen enemy charges. This lack of forewarning is almost off putting at first thanks to how radically different it is from the norm, but after a while the inability to judge if the characters are in danger imbues every second of the film with an uneasy, oppressive anxiety, one which refuses to be alleviated at any point.

This is furthered in the films approach to action. When things do come to blows, the result is a brutal, desperate and refreshingly grounded struggle for survival when compared to the marathon beatings that people seem to be able to take in many other films. They're also over quickly - no sooner than you realise that they are under attack, someone has a clear advantage and the fight is all but over. It's definitely scary, but not in a way we often associate with horror films, further adding to the unique appeal that Bone Tomahawk has.

But Bone Tomahawk's biggest strength comes from it's writing, particularly how well developed the main characters are. Surprising no one, the stakes of any film feel much higher when a character we care about is in danger when compared to a character we don't, and each of the four main characters that we spent the vast majority of Bone Tomahawk with are believable, likable (to varying degrees) and uniquely identifiable people that we feel a connection with by the time the shit hits the fan. The result is that everything feels more tense, more frightening, more wince inducing than it otherwise would - in other words, the film is more effective for it. The long period of time that we spend with these characters as they travel from Bright Hope to the cave where the tribe lives are completely worth it - not that the film needs to justify these sections, as the dialogue between these four is entertaining enough to justify themselves anyway, a testament to both the writing of these characters and the actors playing them.

Like most, I assumed that Kurt Russell would be the films main character, but in reality it's split fairly equally between all four of our main characters, who I really don't want to tell you much about (this is very much a film that benefits greatly from going in with as little knowledge as possible). What I will say is just how good the always interesting Richard Jenkins is in Bone Tomahawk though - he takes a character that could have been a little out-of-place and makes him the heart of the film, a vital and unusual aspect that you don't often see in horror. Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox are good too, all of them cast well and giving believable, captivating and robust performances that never let Bone Tomahawk down, but it is Jenkins who gives the films real standout performance.

The only complaints that could realistically be made about Bone Tomahawk come from either the films slow pace (which I've already explained as being the entire reason Bone Tomahawk works so well) or the made-for-TV feel that the film has at times. The latter of these is a fair enough criticism, with parts of Bone Tomahawk looking like a somewhat expensive Lifetime movie - but being as the whole thing cost under two million dollars to make, I'm willing to give it a pass. It's a miracle that Bone Tomahawk even exists for that money with the cast it has and the overall quality of it, so it's hard to get worked up about the somewhat flat cinematography, especially when it stops mattering after the first half an hour (if that) thanks to how invested you end up in what is happening.

There isn't a world in which Bone Tomahawk sees mainstream success - it's simply too slow, too non-traditional to be enjoyed by most people, but that's OK. It's status as a future cult classic is a guarantee, and quite rightly so - this is a film to be passed around from friend to friend, to watch with as many different people as possible, to over-analyse and talk about for years to come. Bone Tomahawk may be S. Craig Zahler's directorial debut, but it's also one of the most unique films I've seen in years and more than a good enough reason to keep an eye on whatever he chooses to do next, and I can't recommend it enough.

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