The Curmudgeon

YOU'LL COME FOR THE CURSES. YOU'LL STAY FOR THE MUDGEONRY.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bone Tomahawk

S Craig Zahler 2015

In a year of Westerns which take themselves either not seriously enough (The Hateful Eight) or too seriously by far (The Revenant), it's been refreshing to encounter a couple which respect the genre sufficiently to essay it on its own terms and without postmodernist flippancy. Kristian Levring's The Salvation provided some fine flourishes to the virtuous-avenger subgenre, and Bone Tomahawk gives an equally watchable make-over to that of the posse in pursuit, mingling old-fashioned virtues of character and dialogue with thoroughly up-to-date violence and horror.

Before the pursuit begins, the film spends a considerable portion of its running time building up the characters: cool-headed sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), garrulous elder deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), dandy shootist John Brooder (Matthew Fox), impetuous foreman Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), who has broken his leg falling off a roof; and eventual kidnapee and main object of their pursuit, O'Dwyer's spirited wife Samantha (Lili Simmons), who substitutes for the local doctor on the frequent occasions when he's too drunk to dig one of Hunt's bullets out of a felon's leg. By contrast with Eva Green's snake-eyed mute in The Salvation, it's a pity that Samantha, whose character in these early sequences is developed as carefully as the men's, does not in the end have all that much to do.

The dialogue throughout is first-rate, peppered with polysyllabic archaisms after the fashion of the Coens' True Grit ("shut up" becomes "close that aperture") and delivered with aplomb by all concerned. As a zinger-laden vehicle for character, the script is comparable to Howard Hawks at his most amusing, or to the first and far superior half of The Hateful Eight; and, unlike Tarantino, Zahler has the good sense to keep Russell's character around for the whole duration.

When his town is invaded by anthropophagous troglodytes who murder a stable-hand and make off with Samantha, a young deputy and half a dozen horses, Hunt rides out in pursuit, accompanied by Brooder, Chicory and the crippled but obdurate O'Dwyer. The film takes care to establish that its savages are not mainstream Native Americans; in a typically witty touch, it does so via an expert who is himself an Indian, and who remarks with deadpan disdain upon whitey's refusal to distinguish between cannibal cave-persons and normal decent tribes. (In fact, thanks to the chalky dust with which they cover themselves, the troglodytes turn out somewhat whiter than the whites.)

During the arduous and unpredictable chase, the film effortlessly mingles its comic dialogue with bursts of bloody violence. The climax comes with a supremely gruesome sequence at the cannibals' cave, where Samantha gets to deliver one of the film's best lines, succinctly diagnosing the real difficulty with frontier life. Although the men she's criticising arguably give her words the lie, a delightfully nasty prologue has already shown us how the trouble started; and as that fine, upstanding American, the Man with No Name, observed in another dusty situation, God is not on our side because He hates idiots also.

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