Thursday, February 18, 2016

Bone Tomahawk (18) - a funny, intelligent but brutal twist on the traditional Western (QFT until 25 Feb)

First sound: a stereoscopic buzzing fly.

First sight: a throat being cut.

To borrow from the dialogue between two characters a few minutes into the film: “It’s ominous.”

In some ways Bone Tomahawk’s plot could have been that of a typical Western movie. Shots fired in a sleepy town. People abducted. Posse assembled. Horses ridden. More shots fired. The end.

But writer and debut director S. Craig Zahler weaves in an element of horror to the proceedings that adds to the attrition rate and makes sure you’ll feel the pain of some of those characters who don’t make it alive to the end of the film. (Like the recently released and BAFTA-nominated The Survivalist, Bone Tomahawk was backed by UK film funder The Fyzz Facility.)

But the sleepy town is the badly named Bright Hope (population 268) where new ways of tackling old problems aren’t overly appreciated and even the bar’s pianist gets tired after playing two songs. The women are largely invisible – though clearly are the most adaptable to change – while the men largely fail to disguise their lack of emotional intelligence.

The town has a Sheriff, a Deputy and a ‘backup Deputy’ … and a problem. While bullets fly, arrows seem to be the most deadly weapon. Overnight, a wounded prisoner, the Deputy and the town’s doctor Mrs Samantha O’Dwyer (played by Lili Simmons) are abducted. The distinctive arrows left behind by the attacker suggests the involvement of a particular cave-dwelling [American] ‘Indian tribe’ (nicknamed the Troglodytes) with no name and no language and a fondness for decorating with skulls.

Only a reality TV show could select these four men to rescue a maiden: the handlebar moustached Sheriff (Kurt Russell) whose specialism is shooting people in the leg; his overly talkative white-bearded backup Deputy ‘Old Man’ Chicory (Richard Jenkins); the mysterious bachelor womaniser Brooder (Matthew Fox) with his cream suit, white horse, and stubble that never grows; and the badly injured Mr O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who is “uncommonly hasty” and grunts as he hobbles along on a crutch.

The two hour film splits into the set-up, the journey and the destination, with most laughs packed into the first section, and the terror left to the final twenty five minutes.
“Is it possible for you to close that aperture?”

Backup Deputy’s whimsical nonsense questions and stories keep spirits up and distract from the dangerous quest. With a long journey over tough terrain and a certain amount of crawling, there are echoes of The Revenant as Mr O’Dwyer battles his crippling injury (with the help of ‘a tincture of opium’). Thankfully Bone Tomhawk is a much better film as well as thirty minutes shorter. Frankly there are also echoes of Tolkien trilogies with fewer orcs.
“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of ‘manifest destiny’.”

The quaint speech patterns of the 1890s dialogue are playful. Backstory is kept to a minimum. Sporadic use of a string quartet accompanies some of the speechless homage to Walkabout. While there is much use of a telescope, the director never gives in to letting the camera look down the lens. This is a film with big landscapes, wide shots, and close-ups that you could count on one hand.

When action happens, it’s fast and furious and pretty graphic. The 18 certificate is justified by a couple of minutes of violence and the appearance of giblets. The Troglodytes like fresh meat, though if they’d had been in the edit suite I hope they’d have trimmed some fat off the journey scenes and shortened the film’s length.

As one of the characters might have said:
“It’s the opinion of the backup deputy film reviewer that Bone Tomahawk is a funny, intelligent but brutal twist on the traditional Western and blessed with an abrupt ending.”

Bone Tomahawk will be screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre between Friday 19 and Thursday 25 February.

No comments: