You’re living in the old west. Your dust ball of a town is barely getting by. You’re trying to make a life for yourself. That is, of course, if bandits or diseases don’t steal it from you. And then, consarnit it all to heck, you’re attacked by brutal cannibalistic not-quite-human savages.
Who ya gonna call?
Kurt Russell’s majestic flowing whiskers of course!
Bone Tomahawk is essentially a character piece focusing on how four very different men handle extreme circumstances. In the old western town of Bright Hope, population two hundred or so, mysterious howls in the night accompany the kidnapping of a couple poor schmucks and the requisite Damsel in Distress™. Believed to be taken by inhuman savages called only “troglodytes,” Sheriff Kurt Russell leads three others on a several days trek to try and rescue their friends. Watching these four men struggle against the odds that stacked against them makes up the bulk of the film.
What makes what would otherwise be a straight forward western stand out is the touch of horror and moments of extreme violence. The troglodytes look human save for a few oddities here and there but the howl they make is unnatural and haunting. When they’re around, mostly during the beginning and end of the movie, they bring with them a sense of real fear. Their methods are brutal and bloody, sometimes shockingly so. The graphic violence is heightened even more by the fact that it usually isn’t highlighted or glorified. Instead, it sneaks up on the viewer during tense moments of quiet or in the scuffle of a fight suddenly a limb will be severed. The intensity of it all really heightens the stakes.
Those stakes wouldn’t matter much if we didn’t care about the posse. This is where Bone Tomahawk solidifies itself as a quality flick. The first act takes its time establishing these characters. The matter-of-fact lawman, the loving but crippled husband, the egotistical jackass who still wants to help, and the rather simple but ever loyal deputy. The performances put in by all four of these actors makes me invested. Each character is entertaining in their own way and I found myself wishing they could all get out alive. That’s high praise in the horror genre where often times I’m looking forward to the next kill.
I want to give particular kudos Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins. Fox is perfect as a cocky condescending cowpoke. He believes himself better than everyone else, is callous, and a big meany face. Yet, he actually does have skills to back up his boasting and tends to do the right thing even if he’s being a jerk while doing it. This dichotomy of not wanting to be friends with him but trusting him to have my back when it counts creates a fun character to watch. Jenkins is on the other end of the spectrum being a simple man who may be past his prime. His unwavering loyalty to the sheriff is admirable and his whimsical stories that make it seem as if he doesn’t grasp the severity of the situation. He feels like an innocent that has gotten dragged into a dangerous situation and Jenkins plays it well.
I can’t say why exactly Bone Tomahawk didn’t get a wide theatrical release. I suspect it’s spare presentation and genre crossing story are the prime culprits. It’s a bit of an odd duck that probably wouldn’t have found a mainstream audience. As it is I think it will garner a cult following, and deservedly so. This flick is unusual, and that’s what helps make it pretty great.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Whip It – Iconoclast Ellen Page doesn’t fit in with her mother’s world of debutantes and Texas finery. She finds her calling with the rough and tumble girls of roller derby. A very plain plot about trying to find one’s self during adolescence is bolstered by the fun and unique roller derby setting as well as endearing performances from Ellen Page, Kristen Wiig, and Juliette Lewis. If I ever play in roller derby I want my name to be Geek On Fleek.
The Virgin Suicides – Strict religious parents keep their five daughters on virtual lockdown from the outside world, especially when one of them commits suicide. A group of neighborhood boys, including the narrator, obsess over the girls and try to communicate with them. This movie floats along as if it were a dream and can just as hard to decipher at times. Themes of coping with loss and adolescent sex abound, but if there was some meaning behind it all it escaped me. Still, good dramatic performances kept me going through this off-putting tale.
The Bourne Ultimatum – Finally, three movies in, I’m starting to understand the hype. Essentially a direct extension of the previous movie Bourne continues to seek out the truth about his past and drives recklessly while doing it. This third installment has hit my sweet spot for “realistic” action and clandestine tomfoolery. (Have you heard my new band?) The spycraft scenes of dodging cameras and shaking tails are the best they’ve been and the chases are spectacular. The final reveal and confrontation is pretty anticlimactic but that doesn’t diminish the enjoyable ride to get there.
Strip Search – Two unrelated interrogation scenes play out in parallel. Although both scenes share identical dialog the races and genders of the players differ; a white American woman is interrogated as a terrorist in China while a man of middle eastern descent is interrogated in America. As a political statement about the government overstepping its bounds after 9/11, it’s heavy-handed but effective. Strip away that agenda and you’re left with a fascinating exercise in how performance, setting, lighting, and direction can take the same words and create drastically different reactions from the audience. As a former actor myself and a fan of how movies are made as much as the movies themselves I found this experiment entertaining.
Finding Forrester – A high school student from the Bronx, gifted in writing and in basketball, receives guidance from reclusive Pulitzer Prize winning author Sean Connery. I have a soft spot for inspirational school teacher movies; Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, School of Rock, etc. This entry into that genre is predictable but charming thanks to the interplay between determined Jamal and crotchety Forrester. (Ok, yes, I only turned this movie on to say I saw the birth of one the internet’s earliest memes.)
Silent House – Elizabeth “I’m totally not Magneto’s kid nope not me” Olsen is helping fix up a secluded house with her father and uncle when strange sounds and happenings convince her she’s being stalked. This movie uses editing tricks to appear as if it’s all one long shot. This grounding in real time makes the moments when things get surreal more effective, but it also means we get an awful lot of wandering around dark halls waiting for something to happen. All around, not bad.
Cabin Fever (2016) – Some people think Ghostbusters is a needless reboot? THIS is a needless reboot. This movie opens with a tongue cheek joke about the infamous “pancakes” scene from the original making me think this would be a fun flick. It immediately goes downhill as the original movie is replayed beat for beat with nary an original thought or improvement to be seen. This movie even uses the original script. I don’t know if this remake is the product of ego, desperation, or contractual oddities, but it is a monumental waste of time for everybody involved.
Batman: Year One – The DC animated universe tackles the first year that Batman and Jim Gordon were on the job. This somber story about two men trying to figure out how their sense of justice fits in a city set against them is well acted and features some fun action. The animation is also better than average for these animated adventures. Batman is always cool but his story has been told many times over; what I enjoyed was seeing Jim Gordon, a normal cop and a good man, making bad decisions while trying to stay on the right path. This is a good chapter for fans of stories from Gotham city. Fun fact: Batman is voiced by Ben McKenzie who would later go on to play Jim Gordon on Fox’s enjoyable hot mess of a tv show, Gotham.
Super/Batman: Public Enemies – The DC animated universe does civil war! Kind of. When Lex Luthor becomes president and puts a bounty on Superman’s head, a battle royale against many villains and some heroes breaks out. The plot is here just to set up the fights which are thankfully fun to watch. The real treat of this movie is the banter between Bruce and Clark. After Batman v. Superman earlier this year it’s nice to be reminded that these two heroes are indeed friends.