Talking to Myself: Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk is a strange film. However, it is not strange for the normal reasons like characters, setting, or plot. All of those are actually pretty straight forward. It’s strange because there is something… off about it.

First things first, the most obviously strange part of this movie is the lack of a soundtrack. There is only one piece of music throughout the whole movie. Initially this is jarring, but eventually it seems natural. The sound track becomes the sounds of the actors and their surroundings. This glaring departure from typical movie making defines the entirety of the film. In one sentence, Bone Tomahawk strips away the tropes of its genres and uses their absence to elevate itself above them.

One term that could be used to describe the bizarre feel of this film is campy. While I suppose that there may be some exaggerations of genre tropes in the movie, campy is still not the right word for it. In essence, Bone Tomahawk combines two genres, the western and horror. But, under the surface, there is also a tinge of comedy. And by “under the surface” I mean that it rarely, if ever, shows up in dialogue.

At no point in this movie is there a really blatant attempt at making a joke. Instead, the comedy comes from the obsurdity of the very way in which the film is constructed. For instance, on the morning after a deputy, a nurse, and prisoner are abducted a dead stable boy is discovered. Sheriff Hunt and his “back up” deputy, Chicoroy, go to investigate. In one shot, they approach the barn door, guns out at the ready. The scene is set up to be both serious and suspenseful. In any other film, it would most likely be shot up close, from over a character’s shoulder or focused on their face. But here, we see Hunt and Chicoroy approaching the barn from a wide and withdrawn angle which places their full bodies left of center screen and allows the barn to fill up the rest of the frame. This, quite honestly, looks ridiculous. It makes the set look fake and the character’s look like they have no clue what they’re doing. On a first viewing it’s kind of a put off, on a second viewing it’s genius. A scene like this goes beyond campy and seems to comment on the act of filming a western itself. We know this movie is fake and the characters are actors but choose to ignore that fact. Here, we can’t ignore it because the camera reminds us of it. Instead of two cowboy’s approaching a murder scene we are given two men, crouching awkwardly and swinging their guns from side to side approaching a fake barn. It got a chuckle out of me for sure but not at the expense of the film. Shortly after this scene, the body of the stable boy is revealed and it is quite uggly. Although I was somewhat removed from the film while watching Hunt and Chicory approach the barn, the shot of the body in the barn brought me right back into the narrative.

Another aspect of the film that reflects this weird humor is a kind of a running joke. John Brooder (a notorious Indian killer who volunteers to aid the rescue attempt) is in possession of a very expensive telescope they call “the German”. At first, he will not let anyone else use it. But when the group arrives at their destination and try to figure out which valley the Indian tribe lives in, another humorus scene unfolds. Brooder looks through the German, turns to Chicoroy and asks him if he’d liked to use the German. We then watch a scene that is a couple minutes long in which each character is invited to use the German only to discover that they all see the same three valleys and none of them knows which is the correct one.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? No? Well I’m not sure I see it either. So lets try a comparison. This is gonna sound crazy but hang in there. I’d like to compare this movie to Deadpool. Now, in Deadpool, Wade Wilson continually goes out his way to reference the super hero genre as whole. With lines refering to the X-Men movies, Green Latern, studio expenses, and even predicting things like the “Super Hero Landing” Deadpool continually points out every super-hero trope as well as some of the aspects involved with making a block-buster super-hero film. In Bone Tomahawk, we see the same things. The true “cowboy” of the film, John Brooder, is not much of a hero, the filming of the barn scene actually looks ridiculous when you’re slightly removed from it, and the group of men have trouble finding the right valley because, well, there was no GPS’s back then.So, in a way, Bone Tomahawk is a movie that is self-referential to the western genre, like Deadpool is to the super-hero genre. However, I’d argue Tomahawk pulls off this trick in an even better way.

Bone Tomahwak does not just point out the tropes of the western genre to crack a joke about them, like Deadpool does with the super hero genre. In my mind, it is more like it throws those tropes out the window and highlights the fact that they’re no longer in the film. In westerns, characters always seem to know where they’re going even though they never look at a map. Well, in Bone Tomahawk, they know the general direction and distance they need to travel but when they get there they have trouble finding the actual spot. In westerns, the cowboy’s and sheriffs always look cool and smooth with their guns drawn, ready for a shootout. In Bone Tomahawk, they look bumbly and clueless approaching the barn and the combat scenes come across as badly scripted and sloppy, like they often are in real life. The movie erases many of the tropes we are used to, and in their place, puts something directly opposed to them. This not only highlights the fact those tropes have been removed but it creates the “strange” humor within the movie as well as allows the film to acknowledge what it truely is, a film. Bone Tomahawk is one of those few movies that readily admits it’s a movie and uses that to its advantage. Sure, this kind of thing is more prevelant today, but as in Deadpool, the fourth wall breaks and trope acknowledgements are often used only for laughs. In Bone Tomahawk (there are no fourth breaks by the way) these techniques are used to give the film a “feel” (for lack of better word) that seperates it from all other horrors and westerns. Beyond this, it revels in every part of the movie making process. It is accurate to it’s time period, yet points out the downfalls of that time period. It has a good amount of action sequences, yet it makes them aesthetically amusing and, probably, more realistic than most. It contains well written dialogue, yet uses that dialogue to set up some very odd but impactful sequences. It has no soundtrack, yet uses the sounds of the actors and their surroundings to create a soundtrack. And, as I will explain in the next paragraph, it contains violence, but uses the absence of some instances of violence to make others even more disturbing.

If you’re still with me, lets dive into the violence I just mentioned. We will be looking at one scene in specific but it is near the end, so spoilers ahead. The movie’s very first shot is actually one of violence. A man about to have his throat slit. However, the camera cuts away and all we get is sound effects (which are still gruesome as there is no soundtrack to muffle them). Throughout the rest of the movie we see some people being shot and the aftermath of a murder that, while gory, comes after the fact. I’m kind of an advocate for the presence of violence in films, not because I necessarily enjoy it, but because it gives the film more power and allows it tell the story with more of a wallup behind its punches. Besides, real life is violent so why wouldn’t movies be so too? So, when directors cut away from the violence I find myself searching for reasons as to why they would do such a thing. How does it enhance the film? Well, in this case, it leaves you totally surprised and distrubed during its most brutal scene of violence. One character is dragged from his cell within the Indian’s cave. We have been informed this tribe is composed of  cannibals and we’re ready for this guy to be killed and eaten. The character is stripped naked and I was prepared for a cut away during which we’d hear his screams (like the scene from the start of the movie). However, there is no cutaway. The Indian’s proceed to scalp the man, put the scalp in his mouth, drive a spike in behind it, then they flip him upside and cut him in half with a bone tomahawk (thats where the name comes from, I guess). This is not only shocking because it is incredibly graphic but it is also shocking because the viewer has been purposefully lulled into a sense of security. We have seen no “real” violence until this point because the camera has gone out of the way to avoid it. But here, the threat of violence is presented and the camera stays in that same spot, holding the same angle, until the victim has died. We await the cut-away but the camera holds our eyes in place and forces us to watch what is happening. Again, this an example of Bone Tomahawk taking a trope (in this case actually using it), stripping that trope from the film (in this case rather unexpectedly), and using its abscence to the film’s advantage.

Overall, I enjoyed Bone Tomahawk for what it was. Something different and new. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone because, for some, its strangeness will be a turnoff. If you like horror, westerns, or just weird movies, check this one out. If not, check it out anyway because it is a very creative movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unless you’re looking for date movie, cause this ain’t it. Unless you and your date are movie buffs, then this could work.

P.S.

Thank you very much to anyone who took the time to read this review all the way through. It was certainly the most difficult one to right thus far. However, I tried to take my time and really get across what I was trying to explain. I apologize if it did not make much sense.

Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you thought about this review. If you liked it, leave a like so I can visit your page and see what you’ve got cooking. My next review may not show up until next week because I’m still a few days off from finishing the book. And it will probably be even more confusing than this one. However, Closer to God: Episode Four will be up by the end of this week so please stop by again when you have the time!

 

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