Ryan Covey, Drew Dietsch, Shannon Hubbell, and I sat down to talk about our differing opinions on S. Craig Zahler’s western horror which is currently available on most VOD platforms. We all like it, so we highly suggest you watch it before diving into this discussion. Big spoilers ahead, cowboy.
TN: All right, let’s tango. I think Bone Tomahawk‘s got a great story with great characters. It’s also got some of the year’s best stylized dialogue. It’s one of my favorite screenplays to get produced and released this year. That being said, I don’t think it’s a great movie, because the story isn’t being told well in the visual sense.
DD: I’m more than OK with the mediocre direction when every other aspect of the film is so perfect. Bad acting, a stupid story, or a poor script sink a film much deeper than some uninteresting direction and camerawork. I think the bummer of Bone Tomahawk‘s direction is that someone more radical or visionary could have made something equally as indelible visually, but if that’s the only knock on the movie, I’ll take it.
RC: I have a theory on the cinematography. And I grant I could just be blowing smoke out my ass, the “they had 21 days to shoot an entire movie” excuse is perfectly logical. BUT the way the camera is rather passive and about at eye level, not far from the action but far enough way that you have to lean in to see it.
When violence happens in the movie, it’s sudden, jarring, not terribly showy outside of the butchery and Hunt cutting off Boar Tusks’ head. I think the camera is meant to make the viewer feel like a passive viewer, a fifth party member, rather than the usual omniscient floating camera that most movies use.
DD: There is a very “stage play” feel to a lot of the film, and that can lead to a less dynamic visual language than we’re used to.
RC: I still find it vexatious at times, but I think it really works for the violent scenes as they feel more surprising and vicious. It also works well for ratcheting up the tension because we can’t see the troglodytes until the characters do, they appear to just pop up out of nowhere.
TN: The visual language of the movie didn’t feel really “off” to me until the violence started to happen. When that third act kicks off, there’s a beat when three main characters are injured very suddenly. And I couldn’t tell what the fuck had happened. Luckily, I rented the film on VOD, so I could rewind and pause, but I was totally taken aback by how unclear that action was.
SH: The “fifth party member” idea is an interesting one, but if that was the intent I don’t think it quite worked for me. It had a distancing effect more than anything else, and those sudden moments of violence seemed toothless.
TN: Had that sequence been shot from more dynamic angles, and certain shots held for a few frames longer, the clarity of the action would’ve been increased while increasing the intensity of the moment.
RC: The main reason I think that is for that sudden burst of violence Travis mentioned. It’s disorienting, you only get flashes of what happened. It felt like I was there and was a lot more effective than what would usually happen where we see a shot of our heroes creeping up, see a trog creeping nearby, drawing his bow, etc. It’s almost a first-person perspective.
SH: That initial attack was confusing to me as well. I really like the idea of it happening that suddenly, but the direction and editing would really need to be on point to make it work.
TN: There’s a shot in which Brooder’s hand is severed that happens too quickly, and is framed in such a way that it’s not entirely clear what’s happened. That would be more permissible to me if we had gotten a proper closeup of the severed hand, or the stump, or Brooder’s reaction to the moment. Again, it’s about clarity. Jenkins gets a head wound in that scene, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you how he got it. There’s a closeup of the appliance on his scalp, but what hit him?
SH: I think he got grazed by an arrow?
DD: A rock. I saw it pretty clearly.
RC: It was an arrow, Hunt and Chicory were hit with arrows. It did show a close-up of Brooder’s hand.
TN: See how different our experiences of this scene are? And I know none of us were playing Candy Crush when we watched this.
RC: Hold on, watching it again now. Brooder gets hit in the shoulder with a rock, Hunt gets shot with an arrow, it’s unclear what hits Chicory’s head as it’s moving too fast but I think it’s a rock. The shot of what separates John’s hand from his wrist makes it unclear what did it, but it gives multiple angles on the arm with his face in the shot to show what happened, including it spurting blood… Okay, it was a tomahawk that did it. Chicory gets grazed with one of their jawbone axes.
SH: He’s bone tomahawked then.
DD: Hubbell wins.
RC: I’ve seen scenes like these in more visually arresting movies, though. The bar shootout in Inglourious Basterds comes to mind. I do think the disorienting nature of the scene is intentional. Now I’m pissed off about Brooder’s arm though, because I can’t make sense of who chops it off. There are no trogs near him at that point.
TN: Intentional or not, this is something I still feel very strongly about.
DD: I want to know if we can all agree on one thing: Matthew Fox was put on this Earth to play John Brooder.
SH: Yes! Fox is great as Brooder.
TN: Fox is so good in that role.
DD: Here’s a change of topic: is Bone Tomahawk deserving of the horror genre label it’s getting branded with?
RC: Yes. It’s practically a Hills Have Eyes prequel, and there’s a feeling of impending doom that sets in from the first frame.
TN: I’d say so. Think of the audience that would most likely accept the film — the horror crowd.
RC: I’ve seen a lot of complaints from the horror crowd about the pacing, similarly I’ve seen a lot of complaints from the western crowd about the violence.
TN: It’s a genre-bender, but I think arthouse friendly horror nerds have accepted the film in a big way.
SH: The horror-ish elements take up such a small amount of the running time that I had to think about this for a second, but yes. I’d say it is. There’s that sense of doom that Ryan mentions and the troglodytes are off kilter and inhuman enough that it tilts a bit into the fantastical.
DD: Does this make something like The Searchers a retroactive horror movie?
RC: The Searchers was always a horror movie, just a meandering one. It’s more apparent in the book. It suffers from them trying to make it a John Wayne movie, but much of that message still is conveyed. The Searchers isn’t nearly as hopeless from the beginning as Tomahawk, though.
DD: I guess it’s a matter of time and perception. No one would have called The Searchers “horror” back in its day, but I’d agree that it qualifies.
TN: I forsee blood in the comment section on this one!
RC: Look at lot of the old western novels like Jeremiah Johnson, The Unforgiven (adapted into the Lancaster/Hepburn movie) and The Cowboys. The movies watered down all of them. Jeremiah Johnson‘s real-life counterpart ate the livers of the Indians he killed, The Unforgiven has one of the most harrowing and bloody sieges I’ve ever read, and The Cowboys turns into The Last House on the Left once the John Wayne’s character dies.
DD: Since this is a spoiler discussion, let’s get into some spoilers. Did anyone not do a little groin-clenching when “that scene” happened? I’ve seen a lot of people die a lot of ways in a lot of movies, watching Nick get split in half was fucking rough.
TN: Holy shit, yes. That was one of the top gore moments of the year.
RC: I think he was already dead at that point, it looked like they broke his spine when they hammered that thing in his mouth. (I have no idea why they scalped him, they’re just dicks I guess.) It was still rough, though.
SH: I mean, first they nail his own scalp to the back of his mouth. Oh, that’s bad enough. Then — wait, WHAT are they doing? One of the things that makes that scene work so well is that the film hasn’t been a gore fest for most of its running time. Any violence would stand out, but they really made it stand out.
TN: I just love how Hunt tells him the calvary’s coming. It’s a big testosterone-tears moment.
RC: That whole section of the movie just tears Hunt’s character down and makes him look like a bigger idiot than Chicory.
SH: Regarding Hunt being an idiot, his dressing down at the hands of Mrs. O’Dwyer is a great moment.
RC: I think the bit where they stick the flask in Hunt’s gut was the worse gore moment, though. The way the cut barely bleeds and it just looks like a scratch was way too realistic. I winced.
TN: When Hunt gets chopped in the gut, that’s fucking gnarly. But shoving the hot flask in was a moment of brilliance.
DD: Can anyone explain to me the purpose of the flea circus exchange? Was it just a reason to feel even more pity for Chicory?
TN: The flea circus thing is a great character moment, but it’s a little oddly placed.
RC: Chicory is a surrogate for the audience’s pathetic and futile sense of hope. He thinks the fleas are real, he won’t be dissuaded. Like when he hears the three shots, he just knows that there were only 3 more trogs, that Hunt got them all, and that maybe he’ll be okay. I took him tossing the rock on the ground as him marking the path for Hunt.
SH: I think that’s a good read, Ryan. I also thinks it works well as a calm moment just before things go truly sideways.
TN: Totally. But I really love that exchange about reading in the bathtub. That scene was a great laugh.
DD: Yay, an excuse to talk about how surprisingly funny this movie is!
RC: Chicory is the heart of the movie. He has all the funny lines (both at his expense and not), and most of the philosophical moments as well.
SH: I mention it in my review, but for some reason the exchange between Hunt and Chicory over soup has stuck in my mind.
“Tastes like corn.”
“It’s corn chowder.”
“Oh. Things are lining up.”
RC: “It smells good now that I know it’s not tea.” That whole scene is wonderful, the way he just keeps getting distracted and rambling make the character so real.
TN: This may be 2015’s most quotable film.
DD: OK, I know I brought it up before, but John Brooder is easily my favorite character in the film. Not only is Fox perfect for it, but I love that Brooder is ostensibly the prick of the group but the film never misses an opportunity to humanize him.
RC: When he shoots the horse, the way he just almost starts crying but then catches himself. That was a great moment.
SH: I loved his last words to his horse: “Thank you for your services.”
DD: And I love that Chicory is kind to him.
TN: I forget the line when he asks for the dynamite — ”I’m too vain to live as a cripple.” Something like that. I loved that line.
RC: I love that the dynamite never gets used.
DD: I hope I die well enough to say something as cool as, “This is my spot.”
RC: They set Brooder up for some big romantic hero’s death and he barely manages to kill one of them.
SH: Which is still impressive. I don’t think he had the gun up yet when the jawbone was flying at him.
DD: It vibes so wonderfully with his boastful answer to Chicory’s query about his Indian killing days. “The answer to your question is 116.”
TN: Speaking of props like the jawbones, did anyone else notice how sparsely decorated this film is?
DD: The whole movie is sparse.
RC: I think that was a result of their shooting schedule. My understanding was they did a 24-hour shoot just to get the last scene done.
TN: It’s damn a shame they had such a tight schedule. That cave set really needed some further decoration. Cave paintings, discarded boots of eaten cowboys, bone pits, something.
SH: Yeah, Bright Hope looked like a tourist attraction and totally not lived in. And as you said to me earlier, Travis, the cave looks like something from Star Trek: TOS. Obviously it was a matter of time and budgetary constraints, which is a shame.
TN: Speaking of stuff in the cave, was anyone else reminded of that X-Files episode ‘Home’ when the blind, limbless “breeders” were shown? That was one of the film’s big gut punches for me. Definitely veered into exploitation territory a bit.
SH: Yeah, and frankly I wanted more of that sort of thing. Not something like the “breeders” specifically, but I could have done with more world building. Not so much that the mystery is drained out, but hints here and there.
TT: Yeah, for instance, is the tracheal whistle a body modification or a mutation?
RC: The whistle is a body mod, you can see it sticking out of the dead one’s neck when Brooder summons the trog who kills him. That was poorly communicated as I didn’t realize they even had them until O’Dwyer blew in his (his disgust was great in that scene).
The breeders reminded me of Jack Ketchum’s cannibal novels, definitely more exploitation minded. But it fit with the cruelty of the trogs.
Hey, the upside of the budget problems — Matthew Fox played Brooder instead of Timothy Oliphant.
DD: Oh thank Christ. No hate for Oliphant at all, but this is the role I’ll forever remember Matthew Fox for.
RC: Oliphant couldn’t have played up Brooder’s more genteel qualities. Jim Broadbent replaced Richard Jenkins at one point too.
TN: Wow. Broadbent might’ve been good in that role too, but Jenkins was so good that I’m glad we got him.
DD: Notice how none of us have brought up Patrick Wilson yet? I think that says something. He’s by no means bad, but I gotta call him the runt of the posse.
RC: Nah, Wilson brings the goods. Russell is the weakest link (which is no insult to him).
TN: I think Patrick Wilson’s doing good work here. He plays pain very well. I was reminded of his performance from Hard Candy a bit. But his character isn’t the most interesting of the bunch.
RC: His character isn’t, no, but I’ve seen his like in too man movies to count and Wilson elevated the material. The bit where he reads the poem and goes “that’s not a poem.” That was a great scene.
DD: I did love his, “Sorry,” to the Lord after cussing a bunch.
SH: Yeah, Wilson’s solid, but he’s saddled with the least colorful part. He’s an earnest guy who wants to save his wife. We’ve seen it before.
TN: Let’s bring this home. Closing remarks?
DD: I don’t really have anything truly negative to say about this movie. This is a must-see movie for 2015 and will make an interesting contrast to The Hateful Eight in a few months. More Kurtstache makes the world a better place.
RC: I think, while not totally successful, the cinematography is not as inept as it may seem. It seems to be trying to play with going against convention as much as the story. Wile the story is good it’s the quiet and the unimportant interactions between characters that make this movie good and unique. This movie is an experience and I couldn’t love it more if I tried.
SH: I really do like this movie. The writing. The performances. But the cinematography and (to a lesser extent) the editing don’t work for me, and that stands out more because of what the film gets so very right. It ends up a slight miss and I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been recommending the film to people. I’m absolutely certain I’ll revisit it myself, sooner rather than later. But it’s a good movie that could have been much better.
TN: The direction continues to be a big point of contention for me. I found myself wanting more closeups and more variation in angles. More variation in depth of field and lens choices. I realize this reflects my personal taste, but these are crucial filmmaking tools, and their value can’t be overstated. Shooting good close-ups is not easy, and I admire any filmmaker who can do it. In closing, I think too many contemporary critics approach film as a narrative art. Perhaps that’s why the critical reception to Bone Tomahawk has been so positive. That’s not to say that the film isn’t good — it’s quite good, but with a more seasoned visual storyteller at the helm, I think it could’ve been truly great.