Overview: In the 1880s, a small posse lead by a rough-and-tumble sheriff head into hostile territory with a hobbled husband seeking to save his kidnapped wife. RLJ Entertainment; 2015; Rated R; 132 Minutes.
Pushing Boundaries: Ask anyone who has seen Bone Tomahawk about their experience with the film, and the reply (positive or negative) is certain to start in reference to the same scene. I’m so confident in this statement that beginning my review of the film anywhere else would feel insincere. So, yes, Bone Tomahawk has a scene as violent, gruesome, and brutal as anything ever included in a movie. The moment is so disturbing, in fact, that even this warning is unlikely to soften its blow. It’s more than just the abruptness and atypical construct of the screen murder, and it goes beyond the disgust factor. The scene is unsettling to such an unprecedented degree primarily because, until this point, the film has pulled a brilliant and layered storytelling con-job on its viewer.
Trailblazing: First-time director S. Craig Zahler works with an admirable slickness, a hand so calm and smooth that we never realize its calculating intent. His storytelling techniques and narrative artifacts influence our perception even when we are unaware of it. It starts in the opening, in which two wandering criminals – played by Sid Haig and David Arquette, actors immediately memorable for performances of dark comedy relief – stumble into a horrific exchange, one that barely hints at impending horrors and sets into motion a storyline that is razor sharp in its seriousness. And when a vengeful posse begins to form in a saloon with all of the familiar stock Western characters – a bumbling deputy (Richard Jenkins), a wise-cracking hardass (Matthew Fox), a righteous and grizzled sheriff (Kurt Russell), and an injured and desperate but pure-of-heart husband trying to save his wife (Patrick Wilson) – knowledge of prior Westerns tells us that we know where this is heading and we know how it gets there. Of course, this informed expectation is wrong, which isn’t in and of itself extraordinary. Genre conventions are used by many capable storytellers to deceive and enhance. What is exceptional about Bone Tomahawk is the way that, over the course of the first two acts, these seeming narrative mannequins are fleshed out into first dynamic characters and then each an individual sympathetic human presence, all without our ever having noticed Zahler adjusting the knobs.
Map-Drawing: And this is how the whole film works, from start to finish. The daring with which Bone Tomahawk engages its viewer is both bold and, during the initial viewing, undetectable. Macguffins and figurative ticking clocks invisibly influence us. As Brooder, Fox’s heartlessness and readiness for violence evolves from something that makes us fear for his companions to something we feel his companions desperately need to survive. The subtly observed worsening of O’Dwyer’s limp as played by Wilson becomes a pulse measuring the increasing sense of hopelessness shared between these men and their story. The seemingly meandering and disconnected musings of the travelers end up illustrating an all-encompassing history of each individual, which quietly deposits our allegiance until the possibility of their dying blossoms into a fear that informs every single movie moment. Each thing influences the other thing, so each turn is weighted from all directions. That is why the film’s scariest moment – not the aforementioned death scene, but the camera’s first witness of the Troglodyte’s inhuman cry – evokes a brand of fear that cuts like a cold knife through new nerves, a form of panic normally reserved for nightmares.
Beyond the Hopeful Edge of Now and the Future: I spend a lot of time thinking about the living history of film, the way it has unfolded and continues to unfold not as a straight line, but as a figurative spiral – a Fibonacci-like pattern in which the current generation of young filmmakers is inspired by the greats of the last generation, who were inspired by the greats of the generation before them. Each new wave of filmmakers has an exponentially widening pool of brilliance from which to be inspired and influenced, along with better tools with which to execute their vision. With Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler has made a movie that forces an understanding of that illustration.
Overall: It was hours after finishing this film that I understood it to contain the best of Sergio Leone, John Carpenter, the Coen Brothers, and more. In terms of cinematic storytelling, Zahler has pushed his pin just outside the edge of the map, a pioneer edging us further into the future.