RIORI Presents Installment #212: S Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” (2015)

The Film…

The Players…

Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins, with David Arquette, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkelt and Fred Melamed.

The Plot…

After a crazed tribe of cave-dwelling, cannibalistic troglodytes abduct several settlers from the Old West town of Bright Hope, the resident sheriff forms a small, ragtag posse to mount a rescue. Although dauntless they’re up against an enemy whose barbarity is relentless and the stuff of nightmares. Moreover can they even find these monsters?

The Rant…

Ah, the Western. That unique American movie experience. That oft-maligned sub-genre of action/adventure/comedy/drama that just won’t go away.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. At least not entirely. All cultures have their own unique stamp on their movies as either historical fiction or culture study. Be it a certain aesthetic that only the locals could appreciate. Some ineffable traits in filmmaking that even subtitles couldn’t help. Japan has their samurai epics (not to mention anime), old skool German Expressionist films (which is self-explanatory), and Bollywood, which defies Western movie sensibility like ketchup over eggs. Who the hell were those costume guys anyway?

None of the above are “bad,” just unique. Lost in translation if you will. If not then just plain old quirky depending on the receiving end. When taken out of context such styles seem, well, weird. One’s trash is another’s treasure and so on. It’s tricky to politely shoehorn a foreign film—not matter how entertaining—to an unwitting audience who understands a different tongue. A common example for an otaku like me is when I used to hold viewings with my buds (sometimes bound, gagged and somewhat bent on sake) over my latest anime acquisition. The flick would be well-regarded overseas and so it was time to take a plunge. Pool party rather. They could not get over a cartoon with an adult plot. Hey. Here’s an example…

About a lifetime ago in 2002, I would tag Netflix for any curious anime that either ticked my fancy or was well-covered in the latest ish of AniMerica. That month’s hot topic was the psycho-thriller Perfect Blue. Not to put too fine a point on it, my crew could not wrap their heads around it. They “liked” it, but the reception was confused, lukewarm and lent them more than a tad disturbed. That sounds contradictory I know, but after trying to digest an animated movie with overtones of The Accused meets Hard To Hold one might experience some culture clash, too. Chances are that when Perfect Blue originally dropped in Japan it was a regarded as a cool, murder mystery. Nothing more, nothing less. On this side of the Pacific my crew were bewildered and more than a bit off-put having to witness a psychological drama starring cartoons.

Like I said: ketchup over eggs. Or ramen. Or fries with mayo. Or whatever tastes you are into.

I’ve often suspected that European audiences regard Westerns as gospel depicting American frontier history. Of course that’s wrong. They’re just movies, but so was Perfect Blue. However the Western is such a trite yet enduring conceit in American cinema that it has fast become the go-to genre to tell the world what we’re all about. I’d like to believe the dawn of talkies was the greatest contribution to modern cinema. Nope. Thank John Ford’s efforts that so informed the world ’bout ‘Murican history.

What I’m going on about is although the Western is a very unique contribution to 20th Century cinema its delivery has always been very cut-and-paste. Hackneyed even. The Edgar Wallace plot wheel was custom ready for the Western (maybe the other way ’round). Recall 90% of John Wayne’s output and you may hear what I’m screaming. Yes, the Western is a valuable piece of American cinema and pop culture identity, but what I meant by the genre not going away means its indelible (and not really respected) on American audiences. To wit over the near century of Academy Awards only three movies were honored with that coveted Best Picture statuette. Funny considering how vital the genre was between the 30s and well into the 90s. Sure, popularity of a movie doesn’t guarantee awards, but when a movie that is not a drama or a biopic gets a nod it implies that there was something special about a “lesser” genre come Oscar time. Rather a lesser genre that spun something different. That’s trace element stuff there.

The three Westerns have won Best Picture since Wings debuted (not the sitcom, you goof). Those oaters must’ve been really significant, especially since only two other non-dramas walked away with Uncle Oscar. One was the unabashed, feral action movie The French Connection and Woody Allen’s seminal comedy Annie Hall. The three Westerns of note that brought home the bacon (and perhaps shouldn’t have) were the first Cimmaron (didn’t get why either), the socially conscious Dances With Wolves and the revisionist Unforgiven. Some claim that No Country For Old Men is a Western, but it’s deconstructionist and no Western strays from their trademark (EG: setting, usually in the 19th Century). My observations, my blog and my rules. Shuffle and deal.

I figure when that tired warhorse shakes its harness free is when the Western still matters. Twist it around. Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid was more a buddy-comedy than a Western. Goin’ South was demented. Three Godfathers was a offbeat family film. We remember these Westerns because they were left of center. Once you flip the script on the formula it makes a mark. Even when the movie is drenched in tropes and the curse of Wayne’s ghost.

This is where we come to a post-modern beast like Bone Tomahawk.

A good reason that the Western has endured into the 21st Century is its perfectly idealized American past; the genre is amorphous. The tumbleweeded trope allows some odd twists thanks to the template. For instance, that whole “rugged individualism” that saturates the Western lends a lot to parody. We’ve had lampoons of the genre with Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, or Gene Wilder paired with Harrison Ford (!) in The Frisco Kid. A classic example of mismatched protagonists (read: East meets West) with scoundrel Charles Bronson and samurai Toshiro Mifune in Red Sun, a fine example of a buddy comedy a la Lethal Weapon as there ever was (minus a crazed Mel Gibson before he got for real crazed). High drama with High Noon. Even s/f with Cowboys And Aliens, also starring Harrison Ford(!). All of these flicks have their collective backs against the wall where the trad Western are turned on their collective ears. Sure, the Western is a tried and true pop art form, if not weary, but a shrewd director with a unique spin can vitalize and justify why the Western treads on. That means No Country, although left-field nodded many nods to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre.

IMHO Bone Tomahawk was the closest to a Western version of Last House On The Left I could gage. A twisted and worthwhile spin. I’m not sure how many horror Westerns have been made, but when a movie—especially of this genre—makes you want to puke then that’s flipping the script. Regardless of a somewhat maligned genre that refuses to go away. In sum, you cannot escape the Western. Even if you’re new in town, stranger.

Hey, all in all, this movie was yet another college-try twist on the Old West’s brutal, misguided history. The stuff that European audiences know precious little.

Kinda like with that abortive Perfect Blue screening…

The Story…

It always starts this way…

Bright Hope is decent, prosperous town in the Old West. A crossroads where all kinds can take a load off or find work or just set up shop and settle down. Peaceful.

Didn’t really play out that way for Arthur (Wilson). Ever since he was waylaid by a busted leg at the sawmill he’s been questioning the choice of settling in Bright Hope. Opportunity beckoned, not risk. His patient wife Samantha (Simmons) reassures her injured husband that Bright Hope is the best place to be right now, especially since she’s expecting their first child.

One of—if not key—to Bright Hope’s security is the patient but no BS Sheriff Hunt (Russell). He doesn’t tolerate needless violence in his jurisdiction. So when some surly drifter who calls himself Purvis (Arquette) starts trouble at the saloon Hunt is on the case.

Purvis is delirious, and not because of too much whiskey. He babbles on to Hunt about these inhuman Indians in the hills. They killed his partner. They’re monsters, cannibals and brutal killers. They’re after him for seeing too much.

Whatever. A shot in the leg and cooling off in a cell should temper Purvis’ ill demeanor. But when one of the local Indians cautions Hunt of these troglodytes—especially when Hunt discovers his deputy, Mrs O’Dwyer and Buddy go missing the next day—it says that Buddy’s rantings were of the truth.

Hunt assembles a ragtag posse to rescue Ms O’Dwyer and the others from these monsters. His slightly cracked deputy Chicory (Jenkins), gentleman gunslinger Brooder (Fox) and naturally concerned father-to be Arthur join the fray. They’re going up against a barbaric, unknown threat in the remote high country and their window for rescue is quickly being eaten away.

So to speak… 

The Breakdown…

Bone was a bait-and-switch movie. What was expected was eventually not delivered. This was not a bad thing.

As I laid it out earlier, the modern Western lends itself as clay. We know the medium already, so now let’s throw some pots. And director Zahler knew exactly what he was doing with Bone; process taken right from The Searchers eventually catching up to Cannibal Holocaust territory. A mash-up you may claim, and you’d be right. Name any oater over the past quarter century that did not spin the trad Western on it’s dusty Stetson hat. Hate to say it, but films like even The Searchers may be classics, but in the new century they come across as (forgive me) old hat. It’s all about revisionist, baby, ever since American suburbia saw Dances With Wolves.

You see a very common, oft hackneyed trope of the Western is that of the journey. Most Westerns are not staid period pieces waiting for a cue. Nope. That claim means that Neo’s jaunt into The Matrix was a voluntary, active one. Sure, Keanu could’ve tossed that burner phone into the garbage chute, but instead we got a call to arms for Zion and scads of bullet time. Like the Bard wrote, “Some [men] are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Neo kinda fits that mold, but the antiheroic Man With No Name never would; he was more a victim of circumstance. And a great many Westerns have reluctant protagonists, where the journey is a force of nature—where none ought tread—and a character unto itself. We must saddle up or else. Bone is like that kind of Western, but only in passing. This is the 21st Century, so beyond trekking high country and eluding native hostiles we also get a mystery, existential angst and character study. And torture. Can’t forget the torture now.

Here I must recognize that K had plenty to say about Bone. This installment was as much hers as mine, maybe more so. She did a better job of encapsulating the movie’s themes than I could, so she’s gonna get a lot of props or else I’m gonna be sleeping in the bathtub for a while. Moving on.

About that bait-and-switch thing. Bone‘s synopsis was heavy on talk about gore, grue and guns. Oh that happens, but not on the level the liner notes would lead to believe. The majority of Bone is a slow, slow burn. There was a lot of space. In fact so deliberate in pacing that I had to ask myself, “Where are the blood-buttered chaos I was promised? What the heck’s a bone tomahawk look like anyway?” Neither on that. Not yet. This is the 21st Century, and as we may have learned from Tinder looks can be deceiving. However all movies—even one as archaic as a Western—need to (eventually) keep its true colors to the fore. Heck, even non-linear films are not exempt from this precept. Recall my The Fountain installment.

So. As with all movies Bone‘s first act is the setup. We are introduced to the characters, the plot and the conflict. Duh. Most of it pretty straightforward, tumbleweeded and predictable. Reassuring as much as a dank plot can wander. As I have beaten into the trail dust Westerns are mostly one-note. Sometimes it works, like Dances With Wolves, but due credit supported a wide and varied cast. Sometimes on the flipside…well, have you ever seen Eastwood’s Pale Rider? There is a tapestry of interest being sown, but very little of the plot hangs together. It’s a lot of the lame cliches that have so poisoned the Western. But give Clint some slack; this was his third time out directing a western. Must’ve been easier on the other side of the lens. Long story short Bone‘s first act was whittled down to cliches. But thanks to director Zahler he spun this so much chew as interesting boiler plate. Read on.

The posse. The mishmash ciphers. All actors are capable, but with the director’s vision they are almost Freudian in their roles. This usual posse oater got very existential very fast, and deliberately removed from the impending dread promised from (the absent) Purvis, our harbinger of wreck and ruin and eventually one the menu. Saying this informs the stakes, which are obvious. It’s how our misfit posse deals with the aforementioned stakes. That means the cast has better to respect one another or their mission is all but lost. Details are pending.

The second act plays out like a very curious road trip movie (which, honestly are what most conventional Westerns are), that allowed for a lot of wiggle room for our principals to flesh out their roles. Body language played a big role also, since the dialogue was also just this left or center. For such an errand of mercy our four principals have a lot to share, with us and with them. Such exposition in another western—hell, any journey movie—may come across staid and leave little room for nuance. Not with Bone. The whole rescue mission at a deliberate pace permitted a lot of space and atmosphere. The only other time I saw this approach was in the delightful City Slickers (don’t laugh. At least not at me); causal chit-chat around what’s going on/going to happen next. Like when Mitch and friends agree when to take turns in lassoing the stray cattle. Sounds kind of cute and lowbrow paired against Bone‘s dire straits, but the delivery is the same and still vital: what are we all about here? With a Western it’s often the cast en toto with the lead to keep the story in motion, even when the story is kinda rote. Even with The Searchers. Go stream it already.

I suppose that’s what keeps Westerns going is traditional drama, often cut and dried. As I commented a light-year ago this is not necessarily a bad thing. Westerns at the outset are rather simple, but they offer a lot of breathing room. Especially with modern Westerns. All such movies have a mission that requires a lot of switchbacks so the cast can make their mark, get to the meat of the matter: how the cast deals interacts with each other. It’s a common practice in all movies, but with a Western—with all those cliches and miles of trail dust—everything is under a microscope. I’m not talking about “head” movies here. I’m talking about putting some fresh shoes on an old warhorse. Kinda like Bone.

Anyway. Bone promised (if not proudly declared) wreck and ruin, but please recall that bait-and-switch tactic. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. There’s a classic tactic Shakespeare used in his dramas. Comedy begat tragedy. It made for the final blow all the more potent when you’re caught off guard. With Bone I got a trick of the light instead. There and gone and not seeing the whole picture at first. Almost sleight of hand. If all of this sounds mixed up it was. Kinda like a fruit smoothie.  With mayo and fries.

Okay. Enough navel-gazing. There’s a flick snooping around here someplace.

Bone commences in earnest when Hunt and his motley crew go searching for Ms O’Dwyer and company. It was a typical setup, but then came the glare. We cannot have trad Westerns anymore—very well established—so we must shake things up. Despite the promise of doom and gloom on the horizon Bone surprisingly turned out to be three quarters character study. I’ll even go 80%. To wit, and this may be kind of a dumb analogy (taken from City Slickers again. Just f’n bear with me), but the bulk of Bone plays out as a rather odd road movie. Getting there was most of the “fun.” Our heroes—if you want to call them that—are like a compass rose; four points in all directions as well as echoes of (you guessed it) the sublime John Ford epic The Searchers. Instead of estranged brothers we have a sullen, existential lawman who had no delusions about what he may be heading into. His idiot savant deputy (Chicory ain’t too bright, but sharper than most; the Gilligan to Hunt’s Skipper) wandering through the poppy fields. The gentleman, retired solider with a checkered past, bloodstains and a barely hidden vendetta; menacing. And Maguffin Mr O’Dwyer limping along—so to speak—with a lot of weight invested in this mission. Along the hike they learned how each other ticks and how to best use their skills to not only survive in the high desert but also not butt heads. Tolerance more than camaraderie and then once more into. Right?

No. There was a curious subtlety about how the foursome made their way, and we ain’t talking about how to program a VCR as idle chat. They didn’t have such contraptions back then.

Before we get to proverbial guts of Bone, I’m going to hand over the mic over to K. She has a gift of plain observation that often leaves me with a head full of static. I repeated that Bone was more of a character study than a Western and a far cry from a horror film as the liner notes would make one believe. That bait-and switch thing. belted out so many keen existential dilemmas from Bone‘s rabble that I feel I have to give her the floor. I’m going to paraphrase a few things, but she’s pretty astute and a great deal of the following were her words not mine. She’s also cute so I’ll write spirit of the law and not the letter. Whatever keeps me off the couch tonight.

She was spot on addressing the human factor with Bone. I missed the turn somewhere. There were more questions than answers here, which always makes for decent suspense. Yet we weren’t necessarily addressing some mystery with Bone. We knew what the savages were all about early in the first act, so that wasn’t it. Rather—barring Mr O’Dwyer—it wasn’t made clear why any of these roughshod rescuers at to gain from confronting the enemy. Heroes are defined by their enemies; it’s a principle of fiction. Where would the Fantastic Four be without cranky ol’ Dr Doom stirring the soup? Right, bored (and that’s how H.E.R.B.I.E. got built).

Seriously, with Bone and its crew it was all about give and take. Or maybe the other way around. For such a dire mission our posse is relatively calm and laid back, almost indifferent to the stakes. No pressure. Perhaps the Bard’s old trickery at work. That really doesn’t play out much beyond my previous claim. Not much shock and awe until the denouement. Nope. Just a lazy ride into terra incognito with some restless characters, almost ciphers. Low key caricatures mind you, but the parts reward you better than the sum of the whole A plot.

Desperation is a classic Western vibe, and often underplayed. Sometimes to great effect as with Unforgiven or Ron Howard’s The Missing, which may be a kindred spirit to Bone. Namely a person is made up of multiple things informed by their circumstances and/or motives (EG: a doctor, a lawman and even a spouse). Bone sure was establishing its cast something serious. Desperation was the driving force behind this film. Not the threat, not the rescue, but the cast longing to set things right, if only within themselves. Pretty solid character study, eh? Especially under the feeling that these folks are just roaming about. Can’t stress that enough.


You know what pairs well with desperation? Worry. It can be a feeling that’s almost impossible to shake. Worrying is a lot like fear. You don’t know what to expect until it happens. A prime example here is O’Dwyer struggling with that damned lame leg. It belies foreshadowing, but also makes you worry if he’ll make the trip. He has the most to lose after all. Hunt was the leader, right? Nope. O’Dwyer was there from the beginning. He always looked like in so much pain for love. If he hadn’t gotten off his butt it would be as if he didn’t care, and care was never an option. Russell was playing by the book. Fox was writing a book as he pressed on. Perkins was just along for the ride. Fatalistic enough for you? Grim is a better word. That being said Bone was in part a mystery. A pretty solid one wedged between two other genres; three if you consider the metaphysical claptrap. Bait-and switch, revisionist, existential road trip. In the endgame who cares? When you want more answers than questions then the answers better not be no.

Thanks K. Have a liver snap.

*golf claps*

Long story long, Bone was such a mishmash of cinema I was surprised to worked at all. No, really. There were a sh*t-ton of pieces to the puzzle, but the whole film hung well together. I believe that because all the sops that were thrown in the name of what a Western “should” be, despite all the truly great ones subvert one’s expectations. Director Zahler gave us something to grab onto. As far as frontier quests go we had really choice set pieces, from inside Bright Hope to outside in the wilderness. The dialogue clipped yet took some lessons from both Strunk and White and John Ford. The third act sure delivers as intense as the back cover cautioned warning about “hostiles” and “territory.” A minimal use of music and a classic—albeit somewhat warped—Western end were all in place.

Actually “somewhat warped” might be the best way to consider Bone. What was expected was all the more jarring that baited me and got me all mixed-up and switched around. Hence this crazy quilt of an installment.

May I come back to bed now?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Whatever the plot told you was a lie. Bone was a head trip without the ayahuasca. Didn’t need it.

The Musings…

  • So much for those 16 blood vessels.
  • K: This is the kind of movie you cannot eat and then watch.
  • “Does anyone know how to spell troglodytes?”
  • “Were they armed?” “…Sorta.”
  • K: It’s hard to be tough when you just can’t quit.
  • Chicory is the worst comic relief ever, and that’s a compliment.
  • “So how many did you kill?” “…Not enough.”
  • They are not savages. They are things.
  • “I’d like a cigar.”
  • K: Gruesome.

The Next Time…

It’s the misadventures of everybody’s fave yellow Transformer, Bumblebee! Catch the buzz!

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. 🙂