Reviews: Bone Tomahawk and Cold in July

Bone Tomahawk

S. Craig Zahler’s presumably burgeoning film career is a sabbatical from his day job as purveyor of literature and music, and Bone Tomahawk’s loquacious side treks and dogmatic refusal to gallop when it may trot reflect Zahler’s literary ambitions. They also lightly, even cunningly, mock the same longueurs – for such an ostensibly single-minded film, its penchant for tangential refrains is likely a pointed critique of characters who don’t always seem particularly driven to their cause to begin with. The dialogue is delivered by a deliciously bone-dry Kurt Russell, returned to us at least and seemingly in on the film’s joke, as well as the always reliable Richard Jenkins and Patrick Wilson and the usually unreliable Matthew Fox who here rises to the occasion.

One detects a little of Rio Bravo’s bones in this Tomahawk and its trenchant commitment to the Western buddy film aesthetic, yet Bone Tomahawk isn’t so much a buddy film as an anti-buddy film. The characters don’t learn from their tribunal, nor do they bond; they talk at one another, rather than with one another, and the acrid dialogue melded to Benji Bakshi’s wonderfully arid, cavernous cinematography not only delivers a deathless vision of the so-called Wild West, but an intentionally dour, dismal one. The white men aren’t heroes – they’re just the only ones around. The sense of circumstance, of the arbitrary qualities of action, course through Bone Tomahawk’s marrow.

Unfortunately, the bluntness of the title, if it belies the lengthy wandering discourses of the film, does rear its head come judgment day. By the film’s end, its commitment to the Western way returns. The troglodytes that have loomed over our protagonists throughout the film (the plot is a mere “hunt these barbarians and get our white skins back”) are just that: Native Americans by any other name. Sure, the film deliberates on how they are in fact not as such, but scenes of so-called “civilized” Native Americans reminding us that these troglodytes – who resemble the collective Western nightmare of the savage Native more than anything else – are not “real” Native Americans does not negate Zahler’s reliance on Native American iconography to frame them as terrorizing, inhuman portals of fear.

If one of Bone Tomahawk’s entry points is the criminally underrated 1999 Western-horror-comedy Ravenous, Zahler is unable to match Antonia Bird’s conspiratorial screenplay or her eminently gonzo directing style. Tomahawk is a more traditional affair, and its final act – relatively successful at the level of construction – is also a dismal failure as racial politics. The off-kilter contrarianism of the film’s earlier passages do not travel upstream to the grimly violent finale, and the film feels bifurcated between more idiosyncratic sensibilities and traditionalist aims. It is eminently well-crafted, but unable to restrain the specter of American history. With Bone Tomahawk entering the world a full century after The Birth of a Nation, it seems that the ghosts of American cinema history haunt the modern world as well.

Score: 7/10

Cold in July

Watching Jim Mickle and Nick Damici evolve along with fellow B-cinema auteurs of the 2010s (Ti West, for example) has been one of the surest cinematic pleasures of the past few years. The melancholic gore of their post-apocalyptic Stake Land was honed and galvanized with 2013’s We Are What We Are, a slice of outlaw Americana that tapped into the nether realms of American history with fascinatingly chilly results. The pairs’ Cold in July isn’t as clearly an evolution. With its eye for latitudinal, nonchalant camaraderie, its not-quite-thriller talkativeness doesn’t burrow quite as deeply under the skin as the subterranean We Are What We Are. Cold is a scrappier, looser affair, less assured in its tone and far less atmospheric, but the youthful cocksure bravado of its mismatched leads brings its own pleasure to the table, even if it doesn’t linger as long in the soul as the duo’s previous films.

Part of the problem is a matter of plot – Cold in July has a surfeit, with the first half devolving into an agreeable but less than evocative assemblage of twists and turns as milquetoast suburban husband Richard Dane (a cheekily mulleted Michael C. Hall) shoots a house intruder and becomes a reluctant town hero. There’s plenty of contradiction and complication inherent to the idea, but Cold in July moves beyond his recalcitrance when the victim’s father (played by sinuously menacing Sam Shepard) treats Richard as prey. Ethical quandary to cutthroat, tactile quasi-slasher might be a disappointing downshift, but the film doesn’t stop there. Things are not as they seem, and Dane soon has reason to band together with his predator to solve a common mystery where they are both prey to an institutional conspiracy. A conspiracy the film eventually eschews when the two meet up with Don Johnson’s swimmingly off-beat private investigator who moonlights as a pig farmer, and the three team up to solve another ethical wrench lodged into the film’s cogs in the final act.

The spitfire plotting prevents the film from ever arriving at a gravid critical mass of dread and decay, but there’s a lesser joy in anticipating the script’s gonzo flourishes contrasted against the laconic spirit of the Southern-fried Texans who form the backbone of the narrative. Shepard’s character arc is the film’s most quietly involving bid at pathos, and the film is intermittently able to recall the classic analog neo-noirs it so clearly wishes to emulate (Blood Simple is a major guiding light). A stalking sequence where the identity of predator and prey depend on your point of view gamely sets itself up in the forgotten modern labyrinth of the local video store. Mickle turns the everyday anxiety of not knowing what VHS lurks around the corner of the isles into a genuine masterclass in suspense. The final shootout isn’t as effective, but Mickle’s able-bodied skill with off-screen space and his roving interest in exploring decrepit, aged architecture along with his dilapidated human characters shine through to the end.

The real thrill of the film, however, is watching the three men at its center (it is, unabashedly, a film where men take center stage) modulate their-selves to the whiplash turns of the narrative without losing their homespun, countrified charisma. They all react to the situation presented differently – Hall with flustered everyman confusion, Shepard with murderous sangfroid and pangs of parental disdain, and Johnson with bellicose swagger – and the meeting of minds is inspired. These three good ol’ boys run deep, even if the film around them doesn’t.

Score: 7/10

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