Dear Bone Tomahawk
There are times when you meet someone and instantly know you will love them because they are everything you ever hoped you would find in a person. Sometimes those people change and you don’t love them anymore, or they change and you love them all the more because they became something somehow greater than the sum of their two selves. You, Bone Tomahawk, with your intriguing and playful western trappings leading into a shocking and disorienting later act, land firmly in the second camp. I began our time together beguiled, and ended it breathless and speechless.
In your writing and your structure you are a masterful and playful ballet of two genres, each moving separately and yet in perfect, fluid harmony. You open with a scene of stark violence, illustrating the brutality of the lawless wilderness of the old west. From there, you segue suddenly but playfully into a series of scenes of smalltown frontier life. A former cowboy (Patrick Wilson) lays in bed with a broken leg being tended to by his wife (Lili Simmons), the town doctor. In a bar a dandy (Matthew Fox) pays for some piano music while a wanderer (David Arquette) drinks himself into a stupor. Meanwhile the sheriff (Kurt Russell) and his backup deputy (Richard Jenkins) share a peculiarly structured conversation. A brief conflict sets the stage for the doctor, the wanderer, and the actual deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) to be left alone in the jail for the night.
The next morning jail is empty, and the dandy, the cowboy, the sheriff, and the backup deputy form a party to go find their missing compatriots.Their sole clue as to the kidnappers’ location and identity is a bone-tipped arrow, which a local Native American scholar (a scholar who is both Native American and a scholar of Native Americans) identifies as belonging to a nameless, languageless tribe of “troglodytes.”
All along the way, from opening scene on through the moments in town and beyond into the posse riding out into the hills, you display a deft hand at sketching yours characters and their internal lives. Grudges come to the fore, moral disagreements erupt, and yet all the while they never leave behind their basic humanity in service of creating drama. They have a clearheadedness in their acknowledgment of their mission, and seek to allay their grievances quickly in the name of that mission.
To say too much about what the men find at the end of their sojourn would be to spoil one of your chief, ghoulish pleasures. It’s not often that a movie can execute a sudden, seemingly perilous tonal shift and still keep hold of its audience and its characters. Yet somehow you do it with hardly a single tremble in your step.
Many people will talk about your last act in hushed tones with blanched skin and wide eyes. They will become hung up on the violence on display without taking a moment to think about the reason why the gruesome havok affected them so much.
The first reason is because your writer/director S. Craig Zahler shoots everything in compositions that are clear and chilling. Just like our grizzled heroes, you shoot straight and don’t play any tricks. Battles are filmed with steadfast clarity and admirable restraint, allowing for tension to build from the knowledge of the fight, rather depending on music or shaking camera work to pantomime a sense of danger. Zahler keeps his camera trained in a similar way through your entire run, so that the shift in tone comes from the content of the action rather than the style of the presentation. This helps to ease the transition into the final act, and to keep up our already potent sense of investment.
Secondly, Zahler makes sure to keep his characters vividly detailed all the way through. After having grown so attached to them it would be easy to disentangle our affections when they were in danger if they became stock caricatures, but through all of their trials they remain the people we have grown to love. It makes watching their tribulations all the more difficult to view, but it also makes their struggle even more rousing to observe. Most people create vivid characters just to turn them into fodder, while Zahler knows the value in keeping his characters real and living up until their heart stops.
At turns beautiful and repulsive, you, Bone Tomahawk, are a truly stunning example of the malleability of the genre known as ‘the western.’ With detailed characters and jaw-dropping plot turns, you are a film not to be missed.
Without stunned respect,
Brian J. Roan