Consider the western. Once, it was the staple diet for cinema-goers everywhere. Cheap and easy to make, the average horse opera was appropriate for all ages, for every type of audience. It was sturdy, uncomplicated fare, with a clear moral message. From Tom Mix, through to Gene Autry and the daddy of them all, John Wayne, there was little confusion, no grey area. Westerns were a genre that hearkened back to simpler times, to a world before global conflict and uncomfortable discussions about race.
That seems like a long time ago. You could argue that times changed with the advent of the spaghetti western, as the moral compass slipped out of true, and all of a sudden the heroes acted in ways that weren't that honourable. The death count grew, and blood began to stipple the dirt of Main Street as the guns of the showdown blazed. Realistically, that slippage had begun a decade or so earlier, with films like The Searchers, in which the hunt for a missing child turned the heroic John Wayne into an obsessive racist murderer. Even the high water mark of the genre, High Noon, featured Gary Cooper as the one last good man left in a town of venal, self-serving cowards. The nobility of the Old West seemed like a long way away, even then.
These days, the western is a very different proposition to the Republic serials of old. In the modern oater, good men are hard to find, and gore washes across the screen in astonishing quantities. I guess it's a trend that can be tracked back to Clint Eatwood's Unforgiven–the man that spearheaded the spaghetti revolution was in charge of completing the transformation of the western from kid's stuff to adults only.
Which brings us to the latest batch of westerns. There's another shift, into the realm of art. The blood and amorality are still in full effect, but now there is an attempt to try something new and daring with the visuals. Both Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant are up for Best Cinematography Oscars. Quentin's insistence on shooting in Super Panavision led to the rediscovery of old lenses that did beautiful things to highlights, adding a rich timeless quality to Robert Richardson's images. Meanwhile Emmanuel Lubitzki looked forward, using the latest generation of digital cameras to capture his snowbound vistas, all shot using available light.
The Revenant and The Hateful Eight look like several million dollars, but the gaping hole in their heart comes from the script. Neither film features characters that we feel we can root for. Hugh Glass suffers all the way through The Revenant, but he is a cipher, the need to survive made flesh. As for The Hateful Eight, well, the clue's right there in the title. However much these films aspire to art status (and The Revenant in particular goes full-bore after this, with an almost Terrence Malick pace and focus on tiny details) you walk away feeling a little cold. Appropriate, perhaps, considering the wintery mise en scène both films share.
Are overblown, underwritten horse operas the norm now? Are we doomed to a future of gloriously shot yet hollow westerns?
My friends, there is hope. Next month a western is released that blows the Oscar-chasers out of the water.
Let's talk about Bone Tomahawk.
The directorial debut of author S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk shares a magnificently-moustachioed star with The Hateful Eight in Kurt Russell, as well as some of the most inventive gore effects this side of El Topo. The word “butchery” gets a whole new definition in this film. It's as much a horror movie as a western, brutal and unflinching when it needs to be. But with a cast that features Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and the remarkable Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk has heart and a brain as well as guts. In short, it has characters you care about, and a genuine, honest-to-God hero.
Russell is the sheriff of a small town that becomes the unwitting guest of a drifter. This feller has foolishly desecrated the burial ground of a tribe of “troglodytes”, sub-human natives who haven't seen fit to evolve past a Stone Age way of life. The trogs track him down and take him away to pay for his crimes, along with the deputy sheriff and the local doctor. It's down to Russell, the doctor's crippled husband, the addled back-up deputy and a dandyish Indian hunter to bring them back. But the troglodytes are creatures beyond humanity, and you do not enter their lands lightly…
The film is thick with fine actors enjoying a rich, rounded script. The stand-out performance for me is from Richard Jenkins as Chicory. Slightly addled, prone to thinking out loud, but brave and pure-hearted, Chicory is someone to whom you instantly warm. He and Sheriff Franklin Hunt have a gently argumentative but deeply felt friendship that goes beyond the professional realm. Hunt is a hero of the old school, prepared to do what's right no matter the consequences. Despite the similarity in face furniture, he is a different kind of man to the ruthless Hangman he plays in The Hateful Eight.
A major issue that both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight face is their treatment of women. Iñárritu's film features no speaking parts for women. Oh, all right, a single line for the Ree woman who threatens to cut off the balls of the man who has just raped her. As for The Hateful Eight… Well, no-one comes out well, but Daisy Domergue is brutalised throughout before the camera lingers on her slow death by hanging.
By contrast Bone Tomahawk has roles for women with intelligence and agency. Lily Simmons plays Samantha O'Dwyer, the town doctor, whose relationship with her husband is wryly humourous but deeply loving. She does not founder, even under the most awful of circumstances. Kathryn Morris, playing Lorna Hunt, has a similar relationship with her husband, Franklin. These are not dialogue-free bimbos. They are tough, smart women.
I'm not going to say Bone Tomahawk is perfect. There are still problems with the villains of the piece being wordless Injuns, however much their origin is dressed up. They are savages of the most unreconstructed kind. The Professor, the chap who knows about them, is Westernised. Suited and booted, elegant in speech and attire, he is the image of the “good Indian”. There's no sense that his own culture is anything other than an impediment.
But, if you're prepared to overlook the dodgy racial politics, there's a ton of fun to be had with Bone Tomahawk. Shot simply but with grace by Benji Bakshi (who also lensed a horror highlight of last year, Some Kind Of Hate) it has none of the artistic pretensions of The Hateful Eight or The Revenant, and is much the better film for it. A precisely judged mash-up of Deadwood and Cannibal Holocaust, with more than a nod to the work of horror maestro Jack Ketchum (I'm thinking in particular about Off Season) Bone Tomahawk is brave and brutal, sharp and funny.
The best news of all? It's getting a theatrical release in the UK, following a Best Movie gong at Sitges. It's out in mid-February. Readership, I urge you to go and see this film on the big screen. It's worth the effort.