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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The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow