Back Add a Comment Share:
Facebook Button

Feature


When a group of cannibal savages kidnap settlers from the small town of Bright Hope, an unlikely team of gunslingers, led by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), set out to bring them home. But their enemy is more ruthless than anyone could have imagined, putting their mission – and survival itself – in serious jeopardy. (From RJL Entertainment’s official synopsis)

 Bone Tomahawk
Sadly, for fans of genre medleys, horror/western hybrids rarely workout beyond their conceptual appeal. The best of the bunch, movies like Giulio Questi’s  Django Kill...If You Live, Shoot! (1967) and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s  El Topo, present existentially/metaphysically disturbing versions of western stories, but rarely engage in specific horror iconography. The more direct meetings of traditional horror and western storytelling elements – films like Richard Governor’s  Ghost Town (1988), Anthony Hickox’s Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1990), and Martin Donovan’s Mad at the Moon (1992) – tend to begin and end with the appeal of their most basic ideas. They are noble failures that are interesting and entertaining in parts, but ineffective and frustrating on the whole.

In its broadest terms, first-time writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is a genuinely clever mix of a common western plot, in which a posse is assembled to rescue white frontiers people (usually women) from the savage Indians who captured them, and a common Italian cannibal movie plot, in which white explorers (sometimes also a rescue team) are murdered and eaten by primitive natives that they underestimated. Sort of like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) meets Sergio Martino’s Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978). This alone makes Zahler’s film a worthy entry in the genre hybrid pantheon, because he’s equating stereotypes and modernizing the shared mythologies. But the academic gratification of the high-concept sort of end here. Bone Tomahawk is too enamored with gritty characters and expositional speeches to have time for any subdermal thematic possibilities. In contrast, Antonia Bird's criminally underrated Ravenous (1999) – another period-set western with supernaturally-tinged cannibalistic tendencies – carries the cannibal story elements into the spiritual realms of authentic Native American mythology and extends them to a cheeky (arguably overstated) metaphor for westward expansion in the years following the Mexican American War.

 Bone Tomahawk
Bone Tomahawk is (as mentioned) a directorial debut that was notably shot on a tight schedule and small budget – all facts that give it the benefit of the doubt in terms of technical achievements. But, even with that benefit extended, Bone Tomahawk is a strikingly unappealing movie on a visual level. I’ve read/heard arguments claiming that these stark widescreen compositions are supposed to unnerve the audience and isolate the characters, but the stagey, sparsely adorned sets, digitally desaturated colour palette, and quivering, hand-held camera work come across as artistically indifferent at best. On the other hand, Zahler, who holds day jobs as a novelist and songwriter, does have a penchant for crafting gratifying dialogue and well-rounded personalities. While I’m not entire beguiled with his skills, it’s easy to respect the longform storytelling style he is employing. Like a novel or a play, a significant majority of Bone Tomahawk is told by its actors, rather than shown on-screen. The heavy expositional approach leads to some length and pacing issues (at least 20 minutes of narrative fat could’ve easily been trimmed during editing), but it definitely mitigates the sting of the flat imagery.

(Warning, the next paragraph contains some spoilers.)

Also in the ‘plus’ column is the potent sense of inescapable dread that oozes from every pore of the film. There is a certain narrative bravery in spending an inordinate amount of time establishing a group of heroes/antiheroes who are almost immediately overpowered and unceremoniously slaughtered when they finally make contact with the hostile tribe they’ve been hunting down for the last 90 minutes. Zahler flips tones from melancholic apprehension to utter hopelessness without the blaze of glory that tends to coincide with even the most nihilistic westerns (for example, in Ravenous, the hero recognizes that the act of cannibalism has spiritually tainted him and sacrifices himself to both kill the villain and ensure that no piece of his evil scheme remains intact). Unlike the Italian cannibal flicks I assume Zahler is drawing inspiration from (along with Eli Roth’s semi-similar callback to cannibal-sploitation cinema, Green Inferno, 2015), these man-eating natives are a largely unexplained force of nature that neither garners nor exhibits any sympathy. Almost from the moment they are properly introduced, the major cast – a cast brimming with lovable A and B-list stars, by the way – is basically converted to cattle and slaughtered accordingly. Zahler does right by his exploitation forebearers by killing his cast in wonderfully creative, humiliating, and revolting ways, especially the heart-breakingly matter-of-fact vertical bisection (extra points for the inconsistent quality of the gore effects, themselves – a stamp of Italian cannibal authenticity if I ever saw one).

 Bone Tomahawk

Video


According to the final credits, Bone Tomahawk was shot using Red Dragon cameras and, as I mentioned in the review above, it is an awfully austere-looking film. This 1080p, 2.40:1 HD transfer is really only limited by its post-production desaturation and prevalent darkness. In most cases, neither of these inherent issue are a problem for the overall clarity of the image. Details are tight and, thanks in part to heavy contrast, the edges tend to be really sharp, despite the generally smooth qualities of the gradations. Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s stagey, stark look depends on a lot of medium shots and the focus tends to land accordingly – right in the center of the field. This leaves the far back and extreme foregrounds a bit f and the blurs occasionally feature a bit of digital noise, though, even in darkness, the transfer remains impeccably clean. The dulled palette is basically broken down into slightly greenish-yellow daylight scenes (which feature brilliant white highlights), orange-tinted nighttime scenes, and blue dusk/dawn scenes. Despite this comprehensive desaturation, there are still a number of consistent shades peppered throughout each sequence. Such subtle delineations are neatly supported by deep and perfectly pure black levels.

 Bone Tomahawk

Audio


Bone Tomahawk is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The austerity is met with a low-key, mostly dialogue-driven soundtrack, so there isn’t a whole lot to say about the audio quality here, other than it is clear. Dialogue and incidental effects (footsteps, creaky doors, crackling fires, and the goopy sounds of gore) are well-centered, though sometimes a bit ‘canned.’ The more immersive effects run a gamut from subtle environmental ambience (usually wind and birds) wafting through the stereo speakers to more intensive multi-channel elements. Gunshots carry real thematic heft, in part because shootouts are economical affairs (unlike their more bombastic mainstream counterparts, the characters don’t want to waste bullets) and because they have such a heavy LFE presence. The ‘native’s’ inhuman cries are the most stylized and unique effects and give the track its best work-out. The music is credited to Jeff Herriott and Zahler himself, both of whom are first-time feature film composers. As in the case of sound effects, music is used sparingly (a very conscious choice, according to the Q&A on this disc). In fact, I’m hard-pressed to recall any melodic music beyond the opening and closing credits, because most of the ‘score’ is surrealistic ambient sound.

 Bone Tomahawk

Extras


  • The Making of Bone Tomahawk (10:00, HD) – A decent talking-heads featurette culled from press tour interviews.
  • Deleted scene (2:30, HD)
  • Fantastic Fest introduction/Q&A with director and cast (34:40, HD) – Footage from the FF premiere including Zahler, producers Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier, and cast members Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson. This featurette sort of stands in for a director’s commentary, though one of those still would’ve been nice.
  • Poster gallery
  • Trailer and trailers for other RJL Entertainment releases


 Bone Tomahawk

Overall


I’m definitely being too hard on Bone Tomahawk. It is a pretty special, clever, and creative little movie and its only major sin is not being a great one. I should have based my expectations on the more realistic precedent set by other independent horror/western hybrids, specifically recent near-great flicks, like Alex Turner’s Dead Birds (2004) and J. T. Petty’s The Burrowers (2008) – both of which feature similarly fantastic cast and similarly over-abundant run-times. RJL Entertainment’s Blu-ray looks and sounds as great as such a purposefully sobering production can. I do wish there were some more substantial extras, but the Fantastic Fest Q&A does fill in quite a few burning questions.

 Bone Tomahawk
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


Links: