OCTOBER 25, 2015
The past seven or eight years haven't been fun for us Kurt Russell fans, since he's barely worked at all (a pair of little seen indies is pretty much it since Grindhouse), but 2015 has proven to more than make up for it. He got to be one of the best parts of the last Furious movie (which grossed a billion dollars! A Kurt Russell movie made a billion dollars!!!), and he's got The Hateful Eight on the way - which should, if nothing else, be a more satisfying Tarantino entry than their last collaboration. And in the meantime, we have Bone Tomahawk, which for reasons I'll never understand became one of those obnoxious "Day and date" releases where a few screens will show it starting on the same day it's available on VOD, which will of course be how most people see it. Luckily I live near one of those select theaters, so I got to see it on the big screen where it belongs.
And I saw it with a crowd, of sorts. All of these Image releases play in the exact same spot - Screen #5 at the AMC Burbank 8, which is located inside of a shopping mall. I see a lot of these screenings because that's where a lot of Nic Cage and Bruce Willis movies end up nowadays, and as lifelong devotees to both actors I go see these things even though I know they'll probably just make me sad. These screenings tend to be nearly empty (just a few weeks ago I had the entire room to myself with a Cage thing called Pay The Ghost), but for this movie it was probably about a quarter full. Sure, that's disastrous for a big budget movie on an Imax screen or something, but again, this is a movie that's available (for less) at home on VOD, and it was also past the mall's closing time on Sunday night, so we all had to put effort into even getting into the damn place, let alone buying a ticket. People actually wanted to see this movie, dammit - why couldn't they have at least given it a REAL limited release (i.e. a few hundred screens as opposed to a few dozen)?
Needless to say, the crowd seemed to be happy. It was almost weird hearing big bouts of laughter after a good line in this same room that I usually am free to fart out loud because no one else is in there to mind, but not as weird as the fact that this cannibal western was actually pretty funny. The plot is about four men who ride off into dangerous territory to rescue one's wife from a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers, which doesn't exactly suggest lots of guffaws, but since the cannibal stuff is mostly confined to the 3rd act, writer/director S. Craig Zahler made the wise decision to keep us engaged by giving his leads a lot of fun banter - but never so much that it becomes a comedy. And it's the GOOD kind of funny, in that it all stems from the characters and how they interact - nothing in the movie is PLAYED for laughs, it's just naturally funny at times.
These moments are usually courtesy of the great Richard Jenkins, who would probably earn an Oscar nomination for his work here if the movie was big enough for the voters to notice it. He's the deputy of Russell's sheriff, and he's just perfect in every scene; he's not "dumb" or even "dim", but just kind of aloof I guess, the sort of guy who forgets to eat because he's so focused on doing his job and not letting his (younger) boss down. And Russell plays off him perfectly; you instantly believe that these two have been working together for years and are totally in sync with each others' pros and cons. When Russell has to remind him to blow on his hot soup before he takes a sip, you get the impression it's something he's probably had to do a million times - and more importantly, it's something that he does so lovingly, not out of annoyance. And they both have to sigh their way through their time with Patrick Wilson, the man whose wife they're attempting to rescue. Wilson has broken his leg in an unrelated incident before they set off, so he slows them down but is determined to go along and help retrieve his wife.
Slightly less bro-ish with them is Matthew Fox, as a somewhat bigoted and fully vain hunter who joins them on their quest because he wants to kill some cannibals (he also says he feels responsible since he's the one who involved the woman in the first place and inadvertently put her in harm's way). He thinks he's smarter, faster, and just plain BETTER than the others, and in some occasions he proves himself correct, but while he's a bit of a jerk he's not an antagonist in any way - it's just how he is, and he harbors no ill-will toward them (and of course, saves their lives once or twice). Fox has had some disturbing personal drama in the past few years that has probably made him less enticing in Hollywood, but there's no denying he's a solid actor when given the right role, and someone rightfully pointed out on Twitter the other night that this is the perfect use for him; he's always kind of an unlikable hero.
There are a few other actors you'll know in the movie, but they aren't around long enough to make much of a mark. And that's not really a spoiler; there are a few casualties during the film's two (brief) horror scenes prior to the 3rd act, but the rest of the townsfolk just stay behind and are never seen again. It's kind of weird that recognizable actors like Michael Paré and Kathryn Morris have such brief and thankless roles, as if they signed on for meatier (if still small) roles and saw some of their biggest moments excised. I don't even think Paré even gets a closeup - that's not a cameo, that's a known actor inexplicably playing a background role. Russell's introduction also feels trimmed, so if I had to guess I would assume that there was a lengthier first act at one point and it was cut down to get the guys on the road faster (and in turn, get to the cannibal stuff faster). It doesn't hurt the movie really (and it's still long, 2+ hours), but it's distracting in its own way - you never want to get the impression that you're watching something that's been trimmed, even if it's for the greater good.
And while it may take "too long" to get to the action for some (I didn't mind it, though I was also warned ahead of time not to expect wall to wall action), it's certainly worth the wait. Zahler is quite fond of springing violent acts on us out of nowhere instead of building up to them - it's just as much of a shock to us when someone loses their hand as it is to the guy who just lost it. And the cannibals don't hold back, splitting one character in two starting from the groin (yes, you see junk), seemingly trying to cook another from the inside (by jamming a hot item inside a giant cut on his stomach), etc. Even the surviving characters take a good beating, so while there isn't a lot of violence, what there is is sufficiently/surprisingly gruesome. Let's be clear - this is a western with some horror in it, not the other way around, but if you're patient Zahler and co. will reward the gorehounds who heard "Kurt Russell vs. Cannibals" and had visions of some John Carpenter-y creature fest.
Speaking of Carpenter, Zahler must be a fan - not only did he cast Russell (and shoot widescreen!) but he also composed the music, including a wonderful old timey theme song called "Four Doomed Men Ride Out" that plays over the end credits. Only two others sat in the theater with me to appreciate it, which is a shame - I lobby hard for the return of movie theme songs, and I was shocked that this had one as most of the ones that do tend to be slashers (My Bloody Valentine) or just plain goofy movies (Killer Klowns). But it fit the movie as a whole, in that it was a nice surprise and satisfied nearly all of my particular cravings. Kurt Russell! A horror western! Solid characters in a genre film! No dad stuff to upset me! And it finally rewarded me for all of the times I sighed my way into the Burbank 8 for another movie starring one of my heroes, something that Cage and Willis kind of deserve at this point for making so many bad movies, but Russell certainly does not. It's a shame that so man of you won't get to see it theatrically, but it's a bigger shame that we've gotten to the point that movies like this are deemed undeserving of a shot while Paranormal Activity 6 gets 1,500 screens. Oh well. At least Quentin will give mainstream audiences the chance to see Russell's glorious bushy beard in a few months, even if I doubt there are any cannibals trying to eat it in that one.
What say you?