Saturday, June 18, 2016

Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015) only serves as a sad reminder that the most beautiful of film genres, the Western, remains dead.  Although the film presents all the classical trappings of the Western (it even has a ballad, "Four Doomed Men Rode Out," sung by a husky-voiced baritone over the closing titles), there is no money available to produce a Western per se, and so Bone Tomahawk was probably pitched as gross-out horror film.  The horror elements don't necessary falsify the nobility of the film's Western structure, but they result in some mighty odd, and implausible, plot contortions.

The initial problem that the film must solve is that of establishing an effectively nasty and remorseless adversary.  In the fifties, and even up to about 1970, renegade Indians could play the role that zombies now occupy in action films -- that is, the robotic, savage killers prone to rape and torture their victims (zombies just eat your brains).  Movies like the great Ulzana's Raid or The Searchers posited the Indians on the warpath as irredeemably brutal, an "Other" with which we can't co-exist and that must be exterminated.  (Of course, The Searchers, a film that is really a portrait of an archetypal figure in Western mythology, the Indian-hater, is much more complex than this sketch -- but the film's narrative is founded in an almost Old Testament vision of the Indian enemy as a figure beyond any moral redemption.)  Political correctness does not permit the portrayal of Indians in this way any longer.  Accordingly, Bone Tomahawk must posit a tribe of "troglodytes", mud-caked savages living in a sort of primal horde in a cave high above a remote desert valley.  The "troglodytes" are said to non-Indian.  Indeed, Bone Tomahawk recruits to its estimable cast a famous and authentic TV Indian (the handsome Zahn McClarnen who played Hanzee Dent in the second season of Tv's Fargo).  This actor has only one function in the movie:  he establishes that whatever the "troglodytes" are, they aren't Native Americans.  But, of course, this is completely absurd -- the "troglodytes", although caked in eerie white mud, use bows and arrows, howl like wolves to signal one another, and slaughter their prey with "bone tomahawks".  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.  Therefore, the film's machinations designed to exempt it from claims of racism are both ineffective and risible -- it suffices to say that the bad guys in Bone Tomahawk are some kind of Indians. 

For reasons that are unclear, "troglodytes" (previously ensconced more or less harmlessly in their remote valley), have left the reservation and abducted three people from the town of Bright Hope.  Bright Hope is purely notional village -- it has no economic or industrial basis, a little idyllic village set down in the middle of a completely empty wilderness.  (This is not inconsistent with classic Westerns -- in The Searchers, the pioneers live in Monument Valley and seem to be farmers and ranchers:  but, of course, there is no way to farm or ranch in Monument Valley).  The town's sheriff played by Kurt Russell leads a posse of three other men in pursuit of the savages.  This aspect of the film is played out in a way that will be reassuringly familiar to fans of the Western -- Russell has a school-marmish (but sexually frisky) wife and is accompanied by the "back-up Sheriff", an loyal old man in the Walter Brennan mold.  One of the posse members is an Indian killer who has notched his belt 116 times, but otherwise the very picture of a dude-ish southern gentlemen.  The fourth member of the posse is the husband of the woman who has been snatched by the savages, his participation in the venture hampered by the fact that he has a badly broken leg and, after their horses are stolen, literally has to crawl through the desert in his quest for the missing woman.  The men's trek across the deserts and mountains is pleasantly filmed and involves many vistas of men on horseback traversing empty wastelands.  There are some encounters with other desert dwellers, including a pointless shooting of two Mexicans described as the "definition of Manifest Destiny" and suitably criticized by the film.  Ultimately, the heroes reach the narrow and hideous defile where the savages live and there is a protracted and very gory last act involving lots of slaughter on all sides.  

Although Bone Tomahawk invokes many films from Hitchcock's Rear Window to Monte Hellman's minimalist Westerns, the movie that seems to be the greatest influence on the film is the Coen brothers' 2010 version of True Grit.  Like that film, Bone Tomahawk features florid Victorian dialogue and one of the Coen boys' best supporting actors, the redoubtable Fred Melamed, playing the saloon-keeper of the Learned Goat.  The film is the first picture directed by S. Craig Zahler and, if truth is told, the film making is not particularly polished.  Zahler has a tendency to edit away from the action to extreme long shots.  The long shots are often not particularly expressive and, indeed, sometimes produce the feeling that we are looking at a master shot because something went wrong with close-ups.  (This is probably the case -- the movie with its elaborate set-pieces was shot in the Mojave desert in only 28 days.)  The actors are uniformly excellent -- Richard Jenkins plays the Walter Brennan role and Patrick Wilson, recently featured on the second season of another Coen brothers' project, Fargo, is the aggrieved and crippled husband.  Matthew Fox plays the Indian-hater.  The scenes involving violence are all unexpected and effectively staged -- our heroes get repeatedly wounded and are, more or less, effortlessly mangled by the bad guys.  The film's rhythms are all wrong and a lot of the dialogue, although cleverly written, doesn't ring true.  There is lots of over-the-top gore.  And every clich√© in the film and TV industry is on display -- when an African-American kid goes into a barn at night, we know what to expect.  It's the old Star Trek rule -- always teleport down to the alien planet with one Black guy in the crew so that someone can be killed without having to harm a major actor with a continuing role in the show.  Bone Tomahawk is pretty good and it's always pleasant to see a Western, but it's not as good as it should be. 

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