There are B-movies and there are B-films. B-movies are defined by their campiness and that’s why they’re labeled with said defining prefix. However, the art form of the B-movie has been lost. Joe Bob Briggs would agree with me were he still hosting Joe Bob’s Drive-In. Too often, movies are labeled “B-movies” for their lack of production value, bad acting, bad effects, bad writing, etc. and have necessarily become ironic kitsch showpieces for hipsters. Should you look at some of the best B-movies (arguably B-films), you may find some of the deficiencies listed above, but you’ll also find an original story that doesn’t quite fall into one of our usual tropes. I don’t know S. Craig Zahler (writer/director of Bone Tomahawk), and he may well take offense to his film being called a “B-film,” but rest assured: Bone Tomahawk is a gorgeous cinematic experience.
From the trailer, one would never guess that Bone Tomahawk – now in limited release and available VOD – is, in fact, a horror movie. The production value in the film is excellent and the cast is strong, starring Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson. What keeps this film from wide release is the fact that it is inherently a B-movie (and a wonderful one at that) by virtue of the fact that it falls in-between genres. Painstaking detail is paid to period accuracy in dialogue, set design, and, most notably, the film’s violence. Zahler has given us something here that defies precise categorization, though you’ll find it labeled as a western-horror, with an emphasis on the “western.” Thing is, it’s also sort of noir. Bone Tomahawk’s particular brand of horror is ground that few filmmakers tread upon due to it’s relatively narrow possibilities: cannibalism. If you want a quick classification, try Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead meets Deadwood.
The story is a simple one. Patrick Wilson’s wife (played by Lili Simmons) is the town physician, kidnapped along with the Deputy by a troglodyte cannibal tribe after a grave transgression is committed on their land by the violent and slightly bumbling Sid Haig and David Arquette. The town’s sheriff (Russell) leads an rescue party of Wilson, Matthew Fox (basically insufferable as per usual), and Richard Jenkins, in a role only he is capable of playing with such a perfect amount of black-humor.
With a strong cast and a straightforward, albeit offbeat plot, what could go wrong? Really, nothing does; Bone Tomahawk does exactly everything it aims to achieve, though said aims are not the material of popcorn-blockbusters. The pacing is slow. Deliberately slow. The “action” does not truly begin until the third act, the 90-minute mark more or less, and some viewers may grow impatient. Enjoying Zahler’s ride, however, is half the fun. The tight shots are dramatic and the wide shots are narrative and gorgeous. (Pay close attention to one particular wide shot where the other members of the search party, whilst conversing, overtake a limping but determined Patrick Wilson.) The slow, deliberate pace of the film is congruous with the setting because it’s Zahler’s intent to show the audience that Bone Tomahawk, for whatever elements of fantasy it may contain, is rooted in realism – it took a while to get places back then and it took even longer if your horses were stolen. The pacing also serves to illuminate the grim realization that all the characters come upon individually: that they are in a bad land, dominated by brutal killers – and the killing is brutal.
The violence, reminiscent of Cronenberg, is not stylized, nor is it gratuitous. One imagines a shooting in the Old West resembling the final throwdown in Tombstone. Really, shooting someone with an 8″ barreled .45 or bludgeoning someone to death was a brutal, often clumsy affair where luck would trump skill as often as it did not. The third act of the movie is disturbingly violent, containing one of the most intense scenes of brutality I can ever recall, and it works in the same way Viggo Mortensen’s rampage in History of Violence works: shocking, but not repelling viewers because it is essentially the payoff.
Some might argue with Bone Tomahawk’s classification as a horror film but, more than the subject matter, the pacing and reveal speak to that of a landscape-horror. Were this story to exist in another time and place, we’d much more readily categorize it as such. Bone Tomahawk is a B-film, the kind Joe Bob Briggs would love, shot with visceral realism couched in a sort of growing unease that boils into terror. It won’t be shown at the multiplex – that much is true – and thank the gods for that, because this film belongs somewhere much better. A drive-in, perhaps.
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