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Bone Tomahawk takes McCarthy to its Exploitative Limit

NEPrEhK2SLH4TR_1_1If you’re a middle class white dude born anytime after 1985, chances are you picked up a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian at some point between the sophomore years of high school and college. Many of you may have finished McCarthy’s epic, meditative tome, a select few of you probably claiming to “really, really get it, man.” In my experience, those who say this often sport handlebar mustaches and like to wax philosophical about craft beer, but I digress. Snootiness aside, it really is an impressive and nasty slice of Americana myth debunking, and features one of the more terrifying literary figures of the twentieth century — a man by the name Judge Holden, who fashions an umbrella from human skin and may or may not suffer from alopecia. So if that doesn’t sell you on the novel, I don’t know what will.
Anyway, a work of this magnitude naturally lent itself to numerous attempts at a film adaptation over the years, most recently in this soul-crushing James Franco’s proof of concept short. I say soul-crushing not because of its technical prowess or faithful exploration of humanity’s propensity for its near-religious adherence to violence, but because it’s really, really godawful. Many argue, pretty convincingly and probably after watching the above clip, that McCarthy’s opus simply can’t be contained in one movie. Surprisingly, the closest thing we may ever have to such an adaptation of the classic work may come from S. Craig Zahler’s rather great directorial debut, Bone Tomahawk, a Blood Meridian spiritual successor by way of drive-in fare whose pulp is equal parts genre and viscera.
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Zahler’s sparse, some would say bare bones (sorry) horror-western is refreshingly simple in an age of bombastic blockbusters and overstuffed Hollywood reboots: After two petty highway robbers (David Arquette and Sid Haig for best cameos of the year) unwittingly disturb the burial grounds of some rather ornery cave dweller natives, the “troglodytes” (as they are so eloquently referred to) kidnap an injured foreman’s wife (Patrick Wilson and True Detective‘s Lili Simmons, respectively) from a nearby town. Enter Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, and an almost unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, who partner up with Wilson and set about the grim, potentially insurmountable rescue operation.

What follows next in the film’s first two-thirds is ostensibly a race against time and the unknown, expertly paced yet excruciatingly drawn out by Wilson’s character’s painful impediment — a broken leg sustained on the job before the film’s occurrences. Zahler’s use of both wide-angle and close up shots aided by beautiful natural lighting  gives a great sense of the Western expansiveness, leaving the viewer with no choice but hobbling alongside Wilson and his compatriots, knowing they’re only inching closer to something horrible. They’ll face a number of obstacles along the way, but nothing quite as terrible as what they only vaguely know to be lurking in the distant cliffs.

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And when we finally get there? Well, this is where things get decidedly queasier; a payoff that, while I believe to be generally earned, does little to calm viewers’ stomachs. Bone Tomahawk‘s violence is central to its existence, even if it’s hiding in plain site for the majority of the film. It’s a tough thing to witness when the brutality is finally front and center. The gore is equal to anything someone like Eli Roth has conceived, but where Roth’s films can find themselves devolving into live-action Itchy and Scratchy sequences, Zahler’s violence is brief but resonant. Audiences are left with a handful of the most horrific images I can remember seeing in recent movie memory, not an onslaught of bloodshed that gets lost in a sea of red Karo syrup.

 That being said, the causes of these inhumanities are worth examining, because they could be seen as the movie’s undoing. One of Bone Tomahawk‘s major themes is deconstructing standard heroes’ stiff-jawed resoluteness in the face of overwhelming odds, albeit to varying degrees of success. Each main male character embodies some traditional masculine trope — Russell the stalwart leader (continuing this recent Kurt Russaissance with great aplomb), Jenkins the trusty sidekick, Fox the refined gentleman, and Wilson the brave everyman — and while they all excel in their performances, the story never can fully break from the tired “civilized versus savage” explorations of the past. Bone Tomahawk attempts to sidestep this with a few throwaway scenes letting the viewer know that everyone can be monstrous at times. “But our dilemma was instigated by white men, and even Native Americans disassociate themselves from the barbaric troglodites!” the film seems to argue, thereby justifying its choice of heroes and villains.
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And while the cannibalistic cave dwellers in question are pretty fantastical, and definitely villainous, there remains a lingering sense that, for as smart, funny, terrifying, and genre-bending as Zahler’s flick is, it doesn’t deviate from traditional morals all too much. Late in the film, upon learning of the half-baked rescue attempt, Lili Summer gets in a good short monologue bemoaning the “idiots” of the West. Bone Tomahawk is definitely no dummy of a film, but it arguably makes some dumb decisions. Still, occasional blunders aside, it’s effective as hell. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian may be its father, but Bone Tomahawk is the naive, reckless son who’s stolen the keys to the car and taken it for a joyride. And who’s more fun to hang out with?
Bone Tomahawk is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digitally through RJL Entertainment.

About Andrew Paul

Andrew Paul's work is recently featured online or is forthcoming in Oxford American, Trop, Jewcy, Lent Magazine, and The Bitter Southerner. His collection of short fiction, The River Thief, is a recipient of the 2012 Portz National Honors Award. He lives in Mississippi. Follow him on Twitter @anandypaul.

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