Bone Tomahawk


Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

(2015) Western (RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Sean Young, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Geno Segers, Zahn McClarnon, Brandon Molale, Jamison Newlander, Omar Levya, Eddie Spears, David Midthunder, Raw Leiba, Marem Hassler. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Love can be wonderful; a tender feeling of caring and compassion. But love can also be a terrible burden. If it requires us to go somewhere dangerous, then we go, heart heavy and maybe even terrified, but we go nonetheless.

Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Sam (Simmons) are deeply in love. They live in the small town of Bright Hope, on the edge of the prairie near forbidding hills where even the cattle trails that Arthur uses as a cattle driver fail to go. She’s a bit of a nag, not letting him forget that she warned him not to go repair the roof in the middle of a storm. Per her warning, he fell off the roof and broke his leg, forcing him into essential confinement to bed. This is the Old West, after all, and men did what they had to do.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) also does what he has to do and that might involve shooting a drifter (Arquette) in the leg when he acts a little squirrelly. Because the town doctor is in his cups, Sam is summoned to remove the bullet from the drifter’s leg (she evidently has some sort of medical training). When she doesn’t return home, Arthur becomes a bit concerned.

Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) returns to the Sheriff’s office to discover everyone missing, including Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit). The evidence of a struggle includes a strange bone arrow at the scene. The local expert on Native Americans (Midthunder) tells them that it is from a tribe that isn’t even a tribe – it is in fact not exactly human. He refers to them as troglodytes and asserts that they eat the flesh of humans. He only knows they reside in something called The Valley of the Hungry Men.

A posse is formed. Sheriff Hunt is obligated to go, and even a broken leg won’t keep Arthur away. Deputy Chicory is ordered to stay behind but he refuses to; someone else can watch over Bright Hope while the Sheriff is away. Finally, dapper gambler John Brooder (Fox) also offers to go; he had escorted Mrs. O’Dwyer to the jail and feels obligated to assist in her rescue.

&Even on horseback it will take three days to get to the Valley if they can find it. The way there will be anything but safe, as bandits and bushwackers lurk in the hills. And when they finally get there, the men will be up against something they’ve never seen before – and are woefully unprepared to fight.

Russell is also starring in another Western opening up this winter, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and has found success in other Westerns – Tombstone comes to mind immediately. The plot has a little bit of The Searchers in it, but the similarity ends there; this is more of a mash-up between horror and Western than the traditional John Wayne horse opera.

Russell is at his best here, rough and ready in the saddle and apt to shoot first and ask questions later. His is the iconic taciturn lawman whose moral compass steers towards what’s right rather than what’s convenient. Fox, who is a decent actor who hasn’t yet equaled his role on Lost, does some of his best work on the big screen here, as does Wilson who has found a career boost in horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious. Here, Wilson plays to type but not just that; there is an inner strength to the character that is absolutely unexpected and mesmerizing. Arthur’s dogged determination and refusal to give up despite having a broken leg speaks volumes of what it means to be a man in the West.

And lest we forget the horror element here, it is more or less an overtone, although there is an onscreen kill here that is as brutal and as shocking as any you’ll see in more overt horror films this year. There is plenty of blood and gore and brutality, and those who are on the squeamish side are well-advised to steer clear.

Zahler is better known as a novelist and a musician as he is as a director, but he does a bang-up job here. There isn’t really a false note in the movie and while some critics have sniped at the length of the movie (just over two hours), it never drags and it never feels long. He also has wonderful cinematography to fall back of thanks to Benji Bakshi whose name should be on a lot of rolodexes after this.

It is unlikely the Western will ever go back to its level of popularity that it enjoyed back in the 1950s but it will never completely die. Movies like this one insure that the Western will always be around as a genre, and remind us that there can always be something new made of a time-tested cinematic formula.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted. Exceptional cinematography. Captures the frontier mentality.
REASONS TO STAY: Excessive gore might put some off.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, bloody violence, sexuality, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Russell authored a testimonial for Zahler’s second novel before this was cast.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Chi-Raq

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Devil’s Knot


Colin Firth looks to untie the devil's knot.

Colin Firth looks to untie the devil’s knot.

(2013) True Life Drama (RLJ/Image/TWC) Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Alessandro Nivola, Mireille Enos, Kevin Durand, Amy Ryan, Bruce Greenwood, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Rex Linn, James Hamrick, Seth Meriwether, Kristopher Higgins, Stephen Moyer, Robert Baker, Kollette Wolfe, Jack Coghlan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Matt Letscher, Lori Beth Edgeman. Directed by Atom Egoyan

The case of the West Memphis Three has gotten about as much notoriety as any criminal case since the OJ Simpson trial and with good reason – it is considered one of the most egregious cases of wrongful conviction in the history of our judicial system.

Stevie Branch (Jurgensmeyer) pedaled off from his house after school one beautiful spring day, admonished by his hard-working mom Pam Dobbs (Witherspoon) to be home by 4:30pm or face being grounded. When he didn’t show by the time he was given, his mom got angry. When he wasn’t home by the time she came home from work, she was worried. When he still wasn’t home the next morning, she was terrified.

Her worst fears would be confirmed. Detectives of the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department discovered a shoe floating in a nearby drainage ditch in the Robin Hood woods where Stevie and two of his friends had last been seen riding their bikes. It didn’t take long before the nude bodies of the boys, hogtied with their own shoelaces, were found – in Stevie’s case, horribly mutilated.

The attention of the police turned to Damian Echols (Hamrick), an 18-year-old misfit who loved heavy metal, had at least a passing interest in the occult and was thought to be a Satanist. His friends Jason Baldwin (Meriwether) and Jessie Misskelley (Higgins) also fall under scrutiny. Misskelley is interrogated by the cops for 12 hours and eventually admits to being present at the crime. Misskelley is also severely challenged intellectually, only a few IQ points above the level generally assigned to mental retardation.

When Aaron Hutcheson (Coghlan), a classmate of the dead boys, comes forward with a harrowing story of the ritual murder of the three youngsters and implicates all three of he accused, it looks fairly open and shut. Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator, isn’t so sure though and with moral objections to the death penalty (which was being sought), he decides to offer his services pro bono to the harried defense attorneys who gratefully accept.

It doesn’t take long for Lax to find inconsistencies and disturbing trends in the police reports and evidence. The cops never were disposed to look at any other suspects besides the three young men, despite a lack of physical evidence that connects any of them to the crime scene. Nichols’ interest in Satanic rituals was enough to convict him in the eyes of this deeply religious community. The stakes are very high – can Lax get justice for the West Memphis Three – and in so doing, bring justice at long last for Stevie and his friends?

The first question one has to ask themselves about this movie is whether or not it is needed. After all, there are two documentaries that have been made on the case – the multi-part Paradise Lost that first aired on HBO and brought the case to the attention of a national audience, and the more recent West Memphis Three. Will a dramatized account bring anything else to the discussion?

Well, no, not really. The filmmakers painstakingly researched the case and wherever possible, used dialogue directly from court transcripts as well as from interviews by the police and media. That gives the film a certain amount of credibility. However, that turns out to be a double-edged sword in that much of this material has already been made available in the documentaries.

It should be noted that in a kind of strange twist, the dramatized version seems more balanced than the documentaries, both of which seemed to indicate that the documentarians believed that Terry Hobbs (Nivola), Stevie’s stepdad and Pam’s husband at the time of the murders (they have since divorced), was the real culprit. Certainly a case is presented for him, but also for Christopher Morgan (DeHaan), another teen whose behavior was certainly peculiar and who also confessed to the crime. There’s also the blood and mud-caked African-American man who came into a local Bojangles chicken restaurant the night of the murder and whose bizarre actions certainly warranted investigation – but the blood samples taken by police were never analyzed and were eventually lost.

What you watch this movie for then is the performances and with Firth and Witherspoon, both Oscar winners, leading the way, those performances are powerful indeed. Witherspoon in particular delivers some of the best work of her career which is saying something. She has to play a gamut of emotions from incomprehensible grief to doubt to fear to determination and strength. Witherspoon is gifted enough to let all of Pam Dobbs’ personality shine through no matter which emotion is dominant at the time. Firth similarly plays Lax with bulldog-like determination as he becomes enmeshed in the horrible injustice being perpetrated in plain sight.

Some reviewers have criticized this movie for being manipulative. Holy God, if your emotions aren’t being manipulated by the brutal murders of three children and the anguish of the community that followed, I’m not quite sure what else is going to do it. The subject matter itself is manipulative. Yes you’re going to have an emotional reaction to what happens in the film. That’s not a bad thing.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Mike Morris and Christopher Byers remain unsolved. The three accused who would be convicted on the crime, would eventually be released after serving 18 years of prison time, although the State of Arkansas still lists them as convicted felons despite the DNA evidence that has exonerated them. At this point it seems extremely unlikely that the murders will ever be solved, even though the real life Lax, Pam Hobbs and in a bit of irony, Damian Echols, remain focused on finding out the truth behind this terrible crime.

It is quite discouraging that it seems that the three teenage boys who were convicted of these crimes were railroaded essentially because they were outsiders, square pegs in the very round hole of West Memphis.  The movie captures with at least a relative amount of objectivity the events of this case which have been so divisive in so many ways. While I can’t really recommend these over the documentaries (particularly the three-part HBO set), I can recommend the performances here as worth the trouble to go and find this movie on VOD or in local theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances by Firth, Witherspoon and much of the supporting cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Non-illuminating. If you are familiar with the case or have seen one of the documentaries about it, you won’t learn anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of profanity and some extremely disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed primarily in Georgia, and made its world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Cheatin’