Review: Bone Tomahawk

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DIR/WRI: S. Craig Zahler • PRO: Jack Heller, Dallas Sonnier • DOP: Benji Bakshi • ED: Greg D’Auria, Fred Raskin • DES: Freddy Waff • MUS: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler • CAST: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins

Somewhere in between The Searchers and Cannibal Holocaust lies the brutal, genre-dissolving Bone Tomahawk, an audacious directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t politely invite you back to the old west, it grabs you by the jugular and forces you. Although the film does contain elements of the horror genre, it still remains a true western and abides by western conventions. It’s a throwback to cowboys and indians, but without the social commentary or political correctness. The film is strictly aesthetic, strictly primal and strictly instinctual, and without a cloak of PC comfort, we the audience are left vulnerable. We’re not gonna be treated as docile, we’re gonna be tested.

Giving his mouth some T.O. after the chamber piece gab of The Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell ventures back west, this time as Sheriff Franklin Hunt of the small town of Bright Hope. That’s cheap, as there is nothing brightful nor hopeful in this nihilistic west. The film opens with a rusty throat cut as Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette), two vagrants with no elegance, who are making off with loot after brutally murdering some travellers. They get lost and wander into no man’s land and discover they are walking on an Indian burial ground. Purvis escapes and makes his way to Bright Hope. Buddy, not so lucky.

Bright Hope appears to be a nice, quiet, little town, similar to those introduced by a Rod Serling monologue before things get weird before the tumbleweeds pick up momentum. In Bright Hope, the tumbleweeds gain momentum when backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) sees the drifter, Purvis, burying something. Suspicion entails, Purvis is shot and arrested, everything seems right with the universe again. Bedridden during all the evening’s excitement is Arthur O’Dwyer, whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) nurses Purvis at the jailhouse. The next morning they’re gone. The wife, the drifter, a deputy, some horses, even the poor black stable boy gets gutted.

Thus unfolds the John Ford Searcheresque ride out to rescue the lives or bodies of their friends and loved ones. Saddling up are the solemn Sheriff Hunt, old-timer Chicory, crippled husband Arthur and fancy-pants gunslinger Brooder (Matthew Fox). Their local token Native American gives a stern word of warning before they ride out, claiming that the perps are a specific demented breed of Indian, who feed on their own mothers. Cheers for the confidence boost there Chief.

Zahler, who has four novels under his belt, delivers an excellent script. You can literally tick off the list of necessities that’s taught in screenwriting classes out of this movie.

In a screenplay, above all, conflict must be constant and it always bubbles to the surface throughout Bone Tomahawk as these four men with different worldviews constantly clash and argue. Whether it’s about marriage, murder or morals, there’s always an aura of tension. It also helps when we’re being thrown great lines like “smart men don’t get married” and “Saucy wouldn’t let no greaser get on top of her”. The film can be surprisingly tender at times too, but never comes close to being smarmy. It rolls on subtle, understated, until the final reel when all hell breaks out.

Brooder is the hot head of the four, and appears to be the most untrustworthy. He wears all white, rides a white horse and flaunts a fancy German telescope. He’s a dandy. In a generic movie he’d get his comeuppance for his bigotry and immorals. However, Zahler understand that this is too easy an archetype to simply chuck at the audience. Never judge a book by its cover rings true as the character of Brooder expands.  

On the journey, Zahler keeps the audience in western mode. That is until we reach “Injun” territory and we are now under the wing of a madman. A short battle ensues before our protagonists are captured and imprisoned in a cave with Samantha O’Dwyer and poor deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Oh Jesus, poor deputy Nick! Zahler has now flung us into horror territory. Duke, pack your winchester and ride off into the sunset because you’re not wanna hang around to see this….

Before seeing Bone Tomahawk I vaguely remember reading a line or two about its brutal and shocking violence, but the perverted slasher aficionado in me was all too nonchalant to pay any attention. There is a scene in that cave that will have jaws smacking floors in unison. The pure primal terror of the violence raises the stakes through the roof and we begin to empathise for the protagonists on a whole new level. This is “on edge of your seat” cinema right here and the faint hearted might wanna check out Deadpool or Triple 9 instead. Right after the camera cuts away from the entrails, there’s a close-up of Kurt Russell’s face and his expression evokes an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that leaves the audience with the completely shattered.

I can’t remember the last time a moment of such explicit violence had such an impact on a cinema audience. The image stuck in my head for days. I’ve noticed too, that although critics have warned readers about the violence, they haven’t condemned it. This comes down to the fact that one; the violence is done extremely well in terms of aesthetic and realism, and two ; Zahler’s movie doesn’t rely on the graphic violence, but rather builds up to the bloodshed by delivering us eclectic characters that we grow to care about. Whether it’s Russell’s modest mannerisms, Jenkin’s comic timing (channeling Walter Brennan) or Fox’s vanity, we slowly begin to gravitate towards them. So when the slicing and dicing starts we’re putty in Zahler’s hands.

This film will no doubt succeed in terms of cult status. It will more than likely be out of cinemas as soon as it hits, possibly build up a reputation through word of mouth that might develop during DVD  or VOD release. However, if you’re a fan of genre cinema or in the mood for something different then try catch it in cinemas. There’ll be few visceral and awe moments like it on the big screen this year. There has been a small resurgence of westerns over the past few years – Django Unchained, Hateful Eight, Slow West, The Salvation – but it will take a lot more than that to make the genre really viable again in today’s market. But if we get any westerns with half the originality and audacity that Bone Tomahawk has, I’ll lace up my boots and saddle up right now.

Cormac O’Meara

18 (See IFCO for details)

132 minutes

Bone Tomahawk is released 19th February 2016

 

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Cinema Review: Killing Them Softly

DIR/WRI: Andrew Dominik   PRO: Dede Gardner, Anthony
Katagas, Brad Pitt, Paula Mae Schwartz, Steve Schwartz  DOP: Greig
Fraser • ED: Brian A. Kates, John Paul Horstmann • DES: Patricia Norris 
Cast: Brad Pitt, Scott McNairy, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard
Jenkins, Ben Mendelsohn

Although only on his third feature film in 12 years, Australian
writer/director Andrew Dominik has garnered quite a reputation for
himself. Having debuted with his homegrown black comedy Chopper in
2000 (which launched the film career of then TV comedian Eric Bana)
about Australia’s most notorious criminal, Mark ‘Chopper’ Reed,
Dominik took an extended break from filmmaking before returning with
the masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert
Ford in 2007.

Originally set to be released in 2006, Dominik’s take on the famed
American outlaw was delayed due to an on-going battle with Warner
Bros. to gain control of the final cut of the film (the studio were
angling towards a more action-driven picture, while Dominik was aiming
for a meditative feel), The Assassination of Jesse James… was
critically lauded, and would be recognised with two Academy Award
nominations for Casey Affleck and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

With such a prolific double whammy on his back catalogue, anticipation
was always going to be high for his next release, and with Jesse James
star Brad Pitt once again on leading man duties, Killing Them Softly
has all the appearance of a sure thing.

Dominic updates George V. Higgins’ Boston-set 1970s novel Cogan’s
Trade (the film’s original title) to modern-day New Orleans, where
Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, a professional enforcer, is brought in to
investigate a robbery of mobster Ray Liotta’s high-stakes poker game
by a pair of small-time crooks, played by Monsters’ Scoot McNairy and
Ben Mendelsohn (recently seen as the snivelling John Daggett in The
Dark Knight Rises).

Having previously organised the theft of his own game, people suspect
that Liotta may be the one behind it again, but Cogan suspects
otherwise, and he enlists the help of ‘New York’ Mickey to get to the
bottom of it.

Having set the bar so high with his extraordinary sophomore effort, it
is inevitable that his take on a straightforward crime thriller
wouldn’t have the same impact. Yet, though the use of archival footage
of George W. Bush and Barack Obama doesn’t really take effect until
the final moments, Killing Them Softly is nevertheless a slick and
stylish (and often darkly humorous) film, that will find favour with
fans of the genre, as well as Dominik and Pitt devotees.

Though he is off-screen for much of the opening-third of the film,
Pitt is on terrific form as Cogan, bringing the same kind of
effortless cool to the role that we have seen from the Oklahoma man in
films like Ocean’s Eleven, Inglourious Basterds, Fight Club and last
year’s Moneyball.

The supporting performances are also on the money, with the reliable
Richard Jenkins building up a good rapport with Pitt as his secretive
contact with an anonymous benefactor, McNairy and Mendelsohn are
perfectly cast as the hapless criminals at the centre of the piece,
and it is interesting to see a Sopranos reunion of sorts with
Gandolfini, Vincent Curatola and Max Casella cropping up alongside
Liotta, a gangster film veteran.

At 97 minutes, Killing Them Softly is somewhat slight (and like Jesse
James its running time was originally much longer), but it still comes
with a high recommendation, and the Dominik/Pitt partnership is one
that both parties should be eager to expand upon in the future.

Daire Walsh

18 (see IFCO for details)
97mins

Killing Them Softly is released 21st September 2012

Killing Them Softly – Official Website

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