Bergen International Film Festival 2016
The western was once the most popular genre in Hollywood, and it is hard to argue against its legacy when you look at movies like The Wild Bunch, High-Noon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. These are all “classics” though, movies from a certain time and place, and it may seem like the western has lost its appeal for the mainstream audience. In 2015 we saw the release of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a classic western that was a huge theatrical success, but that year also gave us a handful of smaller scale – but equally ambitious – westerns that, when I saw them last year, seemed to signal a renaissance of the genre. These movies were Slow West (screened at BIFF 2015), The Homesman, The Salvation, The Keeping Room, Jauja, and Bone Tomahawk.
All these westerns play with the genre; Slow West almost a pastiche; Jauja transcends into Kierkegaardian existentialism; The Keeping Room a feminist showcase, albeit the promotional material seemed to miss this point entirely; and Bone Tomahawk, an extremely confident genre-mix. Director S. Craig Zahler – who made his directorial debut here – is without a doubt well-versed in the western genre, and he manages to use this – and our expectations – in both old ways and new. While he pays homage to some classics, he never crosses the line into pastiche or satire, nor does he extenuate the formal or tonal legacy inherent in any modern western. It is a genre with more baggage than most, and it is no surprise that most contemporary releases stick close to the ones that have come before. Zahler does this, and then he tears it to pieces in a genre-switch that will undoubtably turn a lot of people off, but for those who can stick with it, Bone Tomahawk may just be the greatest audition tape for a Blood Meridian adaptation we’ve seen (I’m looking at you James Franco Test Footage).
For those uninitiated, Blood Meridian is “one of the great American novels,” a book “that is unfilmable” and, in my opinion, Cormac McCarthy’s magnum opus. The reasons the consensus finds it “unfilmable” is plentiful – more than I can explain here – but it boils down to a central character (the Judge), McCarthy’s prose (which has already been debunked by directors like the Coens) and its excessive and explosive visceral violence. It is the latter that Bone Tomahawk excels at, because as the run-time goes on, and the journey of our… Protagonists continue, the film ventures further and further into horror. I hesitate to say too much, but it is this cross-over, this explosion of pure, unadulterated violence, that puts the film in its own booth.
Zahler is, as stated, well-versed in the western genre: his screenplay is tight, clear and focused – albeit slightly long – and his direction mirrors all these qualities. He allows the natural scenery a character of its own, the careless and apathetic conditions of desolation and death, and he has assembled a cast that works wonderfully well together. Kurt Russell feels more at home here than he does in The Hateful Eight – not a diss on The Hateful Eight – and he sports an equally fabulous mustache in this. Matthew Fox surprises enormously with equal parts tact and dedication in a rather unsympathetic character, and Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins both lend themselves beautifully to their respective characters.
The Western genre may not be as prosperous as it once was, but that invites a lot of different voices to try their hand at it. Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, David Michôd’s The Rover, and even the remakes of True Grit and 3:10 to Yuma – all good in their own way. Bone Tomahawk may not be for everyone, but it is without a doubt one of the most remarkable movies on this list of modern westerns, and it will definitively stick with you for a long time after the credits roll.