4 Things I Discovered Watching Bone Tomahawk A Second Time (And Why it Might be The Best Film of 2015)
Bone Tomahawk is a Western/Horror film written by and directed by S. Craig Zahler about four men who set out to rescue a deputy, a criminal, and a doctor (who is also the wife of one of the posse), from a savage tribe of cannibals in the American West in the 1890s. It’s a deeply personal, authentic piece of filmmaking that breaks from convention and delivers a powerful, emotional, and terrifying cinematic experience. I watched in on release a few months ago but decided to watch it again to be be sure about how I originally felt (read my review here) and came away startled at what I discovered. This might be the best movie of the year. Here’s why.
It Takes Its Time: Modern filmmaking is about speed. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but attention spans have reduced so quickly that finding directors (let alone audiences) who have patience, is rare. Consider the first minutes of Akira Kurosawa’s spellbinding Rashômon (1950) where a man walks. That’s it. We don’t know where he is going, why he is moving or who is he, but we watch, and wait. It goes on and on and challenges the viewer to look at him, to observe him, to judge whether what little we know about him will make a difference when the time comes. It’s an extraordinary opening that would never be made today (You might be tempted to say Gerry, 2002, is about walking as well, and you’d be right, though there is a distinct difference about these two films I won’t get into here). Zahler doesn’t linger quiet so long on his subjects, but comes close. He lets things unfold, slowly, quietly, and not always effortlessly. He too challenges us to observe and make judgements. Who are these people? Who do we trust? In a scene at the start, a drifter comes to a saloon that is nearly deserted. He is cause for concern when the back up deputy suspects foulplay, and the sheriff is called, just to get a look, to observe and judge. Zahler lets the actors move with soft movements, subtle gestures and few words. A scene that might be played in a blink in other films goes on for several minutes, allowing the characters to develop. Watch where the people are positioned and who is watching whom. Notice how it ends a good twenty seconds after what you’d expect, giving one character just a bit more. It’s a confident moment and one that Zahler handles supremely well. One of many. The film is deliberate and conscious of its pace throughout, an achievement that keeps the tension so palpable, it’s almost unbearable, even on the second viewing when there should be no surprises. Yet that’s the surprise. The pace is crucial in delivering the end and accomplishes more with silence and restraint than should be possible, but does. The second viewing makes these moments rich because . . .
It Trusts Its Characters: While many films use dialogue as a tool to advance the plot, great films use it to create depth, to give characters weight, to make the plot born of the words. Like a fine Coen brother’s film, Bone Tomahawk lets the people be the story rather than voices for exposition. Whole conversations pass that seemingly have no regard for the main story, but are deceptively invested in the story. Every word is carefully spoken and every action purposeful. Take a scene mid-way through when the posse has struck camp for the night. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) is an experienced man, weathered, skilled at his job and one who has seen it all, or so he thinks. In the ebony of night, two strangers approach and it rouses the men. A standoff comences with guns pointed. Hunt demands of the men to strike a match and declare their intentions, but when Brooder (Matthew Fox), an educated, womanizing gunslinger isn’t satisfied, he shoots the men dead. Hunt is angered and the two then draw on each other. They engage in a short battle of words that perfectly captures the two men’s chasm of differences but solidarity in purpose. It’s just one of a many tense moments that build because of who these men are, not what the script say. What’s even more rewarding is how authentic it feels because . . .
There Is No Music (Well, almost none): The first note of the score comes at the 43 minutes mark and lasts for barely a minute, a gentle, haunting play of strings that segues the action to the second act as the men depart the town and head for the caves, fives days ride away. Few films have such trust in its audience to go without music, a device that has for decades signaled the viewer, telling them when to react, when to emote, and when to expect. The China Syndrome (1979) was a masterpiece of suspense because there wasn’t a single note of music throughout, giving the film a powerful, docu-drama feel. Here, the lack of music is very similar, layering the film in a solemn atmosphere. The few bars of strings that do rise up feel earthy and organic, a comment on the weight of the men’s fate. The Troglodytes themselves provide the greatest “music” of the film, their language a series of guttural cries from bone-carved pipes they have literally embedded into their throats. The lack of a score is the right choice, providing for the ambience of the story to be a character as deep and refined as any of the people. It is just one more element in a tapestry of smart choices that make it so . . .
I Can’t Stop Thinking About It: There’s a moment when the men are ambushed by horse thieves, their camp attacked at night. Brooder is nearly killed but is saved by Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), the husband of the doctor they are trying to rescue. The thieves get away with all their horses, but Brooder’s horse resists and is maimed, left for dead. Brooder is faced with having to put down the animal he has trained and cared for, a devoted animal that met its end too soon. It’s a startling moment and one that lingers long after the film’s main story finishes. In fact, it is one of a dozen such moments that populate the story, painting it in such rich color, it’s hard to walk away from it without considering the details. Sheriff Hunt makes corn chowder in a tea kettle, Chicory (Richard Chicory) brings dried flowers to his wife’s grave, O’Dwyer writes poetry, Brooder strives for dignity. These are the traits that, while persistently subtle, define the men. And define the film. Yes, there are shocking moments of incredible, vivid violence that are truly unsettling but again, that is because nothing about the film is contrived or exaggerated. Moments that disturb as well as haunt are as worthy as any film that leaves you happy or joyful as along as they are earned. Bone Tomahawk isn’t about the horror. The horror comes as part of the ordeal, never as a means for the action. The movie is not mainstream, and it steadfastly avoids the trappings that would make it so. While it is mostly a character study, it is also brutal and undeniably gruesome. But these words must not be definitions that squeeze this movie into a genre that has come to be exiled from acclaimed cinema. They instead make the experience genuine. Calling any movie the best of the year is no easy task, and probably fruitless given the subjectivity of any film-viewing experience. But of every film I’ve seen this year, none has stayed with me, none has got me thinking, none has so settled within me as Bone Tomahawk.
S. Craig Zahler
S. Craig Zahler
Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox