Bone Tomahawk

Director S. Craig Zahler (2016)

Four cowboys ride out to the rescue in this brutal western horror.

Kurt Russell is a crafty and charming Sheriff, leading his misfit posse against cannibal troglodytes.

The savages have captured his deputy, a young bride and an outlaw and we’re never sure if anyone is coming back alive.

There’s a welcome element of the supernatural and the sparse music and dry humour echo the barren landscape.

With well staged gory action scenes, it’s an effective visceral thrill ride which succeeds in upsetting the stomach.

But it’s never interested in engaging the brain.

 

The Hateful Eight

Director: Quentin Tarantino (2016)

Quentin Tarantino’s new western is a slow burning fistful of cinematic dynamite which explodes all over the screen.

In a set up surprisingly reminiscent of Agatha Christie, eight hateful desperadoes are brought together one night by a Wyoming blizzard.

The discovery of loose connections leads to the opportunity to settle old scores and much bloodshed.

It’s a major work from an important director and a minor masterpiece of the genre.

Building on the strengths of Django Unchained (2013), Tarantino’s burgeoning maturity after a mid career slump of Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Death Proof (2007) suggests the mouthwatering prospect his best work is yet to come.

The Hateful Eight (2016) is proclaimed as Tarantino’s 8th film. With one eye on his legacy the 52 year old director recently speculated he would only make 10 movies, adding he felt he would never dominate the Academy Awards with multiple wins for a single film.

His current upward trajectory suggests his tenth and possibly final film could easily sweep the Oscars board.

In any circumstances I very much doubt Tarantino will go quietly into the cinematic night of his own accord.

With two consecutive westerns under his gun belt, Tarantino seems to have found his meter in the genre, itself the great American art form.

His previous best work was Jackie Brown (1997) based on the novel Rum Punch (pub. 1992) by Elmore Leonard.

The inestimable crime writer produced a raft of novels, many of which ended up on screen. Notable examples are Hombre (1967) Get Shorty (1995) and Out of Sight (1998).

However he began his career as a prodigious writer of pulp westerns. Three-Ten To Yuma (pub. 1953) was filmed in 1957 as 3:10 To Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, and filmed again in 2007 with Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

Should Tarantino feel the need for inspiration he could do worse than tackle another of Leonard’s many works.

Until then we have The Hateful Eight which as rich in character and performance as any movie Tarantino has made thus far.

The former enfant terrible of Indie cinema takes a more mature and traditional approach.

He throws out the pop cultural references in favour of discussions on justice and the morality of the civil war.

Also out are the eclectic rock soundtrack and in comes a score by the maestro of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Morricone.

As good as it is, it’s no disservice to suggest it’s not the greatest work from the composer of the score for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, among many others.

And it’s worth the entrance fee to be able to savour it on a cinema sound system.

A majestic opening shot features a vast snow-filled plain with a stagecoach driving past a frozen crucifix.

This elegant, eloquent statement of intent gives an icy indication of the grand guignol the passengers are heading towards.

This is cinematographer Robert Richardson’s 5th Tarantino movie after Django Unchained (2013), Inglourious Basterds (2009) Kill Bill 2 (2004) and Kill Bill (2003).

His ridiculously impressive CV includes 6 Scorsese films, 9 by Oliver Stone and works by Robert Redford, Barry Levinson and Robert Reiner.

Plus he’s one of only two living persons to win 3 Oscars for his craft. There’s another 5 nominations in there as well.

Colorado stands in for Wyoming and camera movement is kept to practical minimum while capturing the magnificent icy vistas.

Once inside in the relative warmth, Richardson’s camera glides about the confined space to skilfully illuminate the dialogue.

Even with 2 screenplay winning Oscars from 3 nominations, his sharp wordcraft is among the best Tarantino has written, it’s no wonder actors return to work for him time and again.

Heading what is now practically of troupe of Tarantino regulars, Samuel L. Jackson plays Major Warren, a former Union soldier turned bounty hunter.

Our first encounter him reprises the entrance of John Wayne in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

Other visual influences are Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971).

With his frozen bounty in tow Warren hitches a ride on a private stage hired Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter, known as The Hangman.

It’s always great to see Russell in anything  and seeing him in wrapped up in a blizzard raises pleasant memories of John Carpenter’s sci-fi chiller The Thing (1982).

The Hangman is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue to the town of Red Rock to be hung. Jennifer Jason Leigh brings a fierce humour to her demented portrayal.

Her heavily bruised eye resembles the stylised look of Alex from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and suggests some impending ultra violence.

Vying with Leigh as the most valuable player in the uniformly excellent cast is Walton Goggins. He plays a racist former confederate soldier called Chris Mannix.

Other returning Tarantino regulars include Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell and Tim Roth channelling Terry-Thomas.

Caught up in a blinding snowstorm the travellers reluctantly take refuge together in an isolated holding post where other guests are warming themselves.

This fraught atmosphere demonstrates Tarantino’s ability to and it frequently wrong foots us in our expectations of where the story is going.

All the characters have nicknames referring to their status, The Prisoner, The Sheriff and so on.

When doubt is shed on their self-declared personal narratives, this remove from their professed identities adds layers to the slowly building snow drifts of lies, fear and mistrust.

As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, there is a non-linear narrative. This gives a greater opportunity for character development than a more straightforward approach to structure would allow.

There’s a crude and confrontational tale Major Warren tells Bruce Dern’s aged General and some may feel this scene is evidence the director hasn’t yet shaken off his juvenile sense of humour.

However it serves a narrative purpose and there’s a sense Tarantino can’t resist baiting his film with poisoned morsels for unwary detractors.

Domergue suffers repeated physical abuse. It’s not the violence itself which worries, that can be justified by the milieu and far worse treatment is meted out to women in the westerns of Leone and Eastwood.

What’s problematic about this violence is its use as a literal punchline. The abuse of a captive woman, the only female character of note, is intentionally used to draw laughs from the audience.

The defence could reasonably claim more and greater violence is trespassed against other characters and done in an equally intentionally comic and more grisly manner.

Plus her tolerance for pain and patience for revenge tells us a great deal about her character.

Production of The Hateful Eight ran parallel to the Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle The Revenant (2016).

Although superficially similar in their brutal nature and western setting, the two frozen features are very different beasts except in the extremes of their ambition.

With The Hateful Eight distributor Harvey Weinstein stealing a commercial march by opening in the UK a week earlier, it’s doubtful a mass UK audience could stomach two similar seeming films in quick succession.

With this in mind I expect The Hateful Eight to win at the box office but The Revenant to win bigger at the Oscars.

 

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu (2016)

Gripping, grisly and grizzly, this epic revenge western is the first must see film of 2016.

Leonardo DiCaprio goes hunting for the best actor Oscar in this thrilling and icily apocalyptic adventure.

Despite his best efforts, notably his portrayal of a ravenous financier in The Wolf of Wall Street (2014), the Academy award has so far eluded him.

But on this form as fur trapper and explorer Hugh Glass, there’s every chance he’ll bag it.

While on an expedition in the uncharted Northern frontier, Glass is brutally mauled by a bear.

I could barely endure the ferocious scene as the angry beast tears away at Glass with it’s hot breath steaming the camera lens.

He just about survives only to see his son murdered and find himself abandoned.

Driven by his pain and suffering Glass begins a 200 mile odyssey across the wild, wild west, intent on killing the man who betrayed him.

On the lonesome trail Glass endures being washed away, buried alive, burned and stabbed.

There’s visceral violence and dialogue as sparse and unforgiving as the environment.

For those who aren’t convinced by DiCaprio’s acting ability, they should see how much he conveys here while speaking very little.

Meanwhile as an old native American leads a war party in search of his missing daughter, a party of French hunters are wreaking destruction across the landscape and complicating Glass’ progress.

A huddle of orphaned children, murdered sons, forgotten wives and rich fathers are offered as a limited backstory for various characters, tying them together in a litany of loss.

With long stretches of screen time dialogue free, character is conveyed though action. The principals are aware of the conflicts in the damnable choices they face.

A trio of British actors offer brilliant support to DiCaprio.

With Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Legend (2015) and Locke (2014) Tom Hardy is enjoying a great run of projects.

He plays the pipe smoking trapper Fitzgerald, a vicious pragmatist rather than evil incarnate.

Even more blessed with an uncanny knack of choosing great projects is the likeable, versatile and always interesting Domhnall Gleeson.

He comes of age as Captain Henry, the leader of the hunting expedition who is out of his depth.

Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, the youngest of the troop and arguably the closest it carries to a conscience.

Editor Stephen Mirrione previously worked on Birdman (2015) and won an Oscar for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000).

His signature long edits create an intensive immediacy and putting us uncomfortably in the centre of the action.

Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki won consecutive Oscars for Gravity (2014) and Birdman (2015) and may well earn a third here.

Director Inarritu won best film, director and screenplay Oscars for Birdman (2015) and it would it not be undeserved if he repeated the trick in 2016, though in the adapted screenplay not original screenplay category as in Birdman (2015).

As in Birdman (2015) Lubezki’s ceaselessly circling camera work puts us in the middle of the action whether on horseback, on boats or underwater.

We witness an avalanche, rape, castration, shoot outs, knife fights, a hanging, a massacre and the aftermath of several more.

The landscape is alive with moose, wolves, horses, fish, buffalo and ants, demonstrating how ill geared humanity is to surviving in this fierce winter wonderland.

Set in Wyoming the production went snow chasing through Canada, the United States and Argentina to achieve the frostbitten extremes of the American frontier.

Grounded in fire, rock and ice, the elemental force of the film is captured in blues,whites and greys, with explosive moments of orange punctuating the palette.

Visual reference points are Robert Altman’s McCabe And Mrs Miller (1971) and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972).

Thematically the story draws on Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). It is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name inspired by the exploits of the real Hugh Glass.

Ideas of commerce and colonisation swirl around the contemporary issues of the ownership of natural resources, the conflict between races and the role of the military in a civil society.

The Revenant means ‘the returned’ and refers to a person who comes back from the dead.

It sounds like a combination of ‘revenge’ and ‘covenant’, god’s code of behaviour issued to Moses in the Old Testament.

These two ideas compete within Glass for supremacy as he battles towards his prey.

Glimpses of Glass’ late wife through fragments of memories remind us of his spirituality even as he symbolically swathes himself in bearskin.

Eating its flesh shows his growing connection with the environment but also suggests a departure from the rational to an animal state.

In fables there is always a limit to how long one can adopt the shape of another creature before losing one’s humanity for ever.

Glass’ quest for revenge becomes a battle for his soul from which he may never recover.

A chilling final frame questions the audience as to how they would behave in Glass’ circumstances. It’s an electrifying end to a remarkably realised endeavour.

@ChrisHunneysett

Slow West

Director: John Maclean (2015)

A lovestruck Scot hits the trail way out west in this confident and compelling western.

It rustles up great performances, pitiless action, majestic scenery, bone dry humour and a melancholy soundtrack.

Cast from the mould of Don Quixote, 16 year old Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a naive and romantic doe-eyed Bambi of an un-rough youth.

He dreams of building railway to the moon and is given to gnomic utterances such as ‘love is universal, like death’ – though he has no real understanding of either.

Riding a horse weighed down with the gentlemanly essentials of a teapot and guide book, he has abandoned his privileged Sottish home to find his love Rose (Caren Pistorius) in the wild west of Colorado.

She left Scotland after an accident and now lives in rural isolation. We see their romance in flashbacks.

Through shoot-outs, robberies and flash-floods he encounters Native Americans, musicians, writers, orphans, soldiers and outlaws.

Unprepared for the violent and treacherous road, he employs a taciturn, cigar chomping sharp-shooter called Silas (Michael Fassbender) as a guide. He has more knowledge of Rose than he lets on.

Even next to the experienced and charismatic Fassbender, Smit McPhee sits tall in his acting saddle and never in the shade.

The chemistry between these travellers reveal facets of their character, altering our perception of them.

Fassbender gives a thrillingly controlled performance, hinting at nerves and a conscience hiding behind the facade of an ice-cold killer.

The film is so well constructed his voice over seems redundant – perhaps it was a commercial decision made by the producers.

With it’s surrogate family-building subplot there are echoes of Eastwood’s directorial masterpiece The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976).

Not content with riffing on one classic, Slow West also utilises the three pronged dynamic of Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966).

While Silas has strong echoes of Clint Eastwood‘s The Man With No Name, a dog-collared bounty hunter called Angus The Clergyman (Tony Croft) draws on Lee Van Cleef’s introduction as The Bad where he is similarly attired.

Ben Mendelsohn completes a trio of competing mercenaries as an outlaw called Payne. He’s a swaggering presence in a bearskin coat, reminiscent Butler (Hugh Millais) in McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

Though the scale of Slow West is smaller than those films, it hits it’s ambitious targets with a Silas-like accuracy.

This a wonderfully composed movie; cinematographer Robbie Ryan only moves his camera if it serves his purpose. He previously shot Fassbender on Andrea Arnold’s gritty Brit drama Fish Tank (2009).

Musical supervisor Lucy Bright has the London Contemporary Orchestra provide a mournful string accompaniment to Ryan’s strong eye.

This is the second excellent western of the year after Kristian Levring’s The Salvation, suggesting the genre is a long way from Boot-hill. That was filmed in South Africa, Slow West was shot in New Zealand.

Despite disparate location work, both offer a fresh and defiantly European perspective on the ultimate American genre. They are intelligent, action-orientated and intense additions to the canon.

The Salvation

Director: Kristian Levring (2015)

Saddle up for this exciting and cynical Western shot through with murder, revenge and rape.

When a peaceful farmer swaps his ploughshares for pistols to exact retribution on his family’s killers, it results in a deadly feud threatening the interests of the rich and powerful.

Having reinvented police procedural TV dramas, the Danes cheekily train their sights on the archetypal Hollywood genre.

They deploy the usual dramatic furniture of six-guns, shoot-outs, saddles, saloons and a safe full of money – then dress them up with biblical overtones and contemporary issues such as government corruption and environmental concerns.

Filmed in South Africa with a European, predominantly Danish cast adds to the new perspective, emphasising the sweeping immigrant nature of the US of the period.

Seven years after serving in the Danish army in the 1864 war against the Germans, brothers Jon and Pete (Mads Mikkelsen and Mikael Persbrandt) are living a hardscrabble farming life in the US West.

They are finally joined by Jon’s wife Marie and son Kresten (Nanna Oland Fabricius and Toke Lars Bjarke) on the frontier.

Kresten is now a young teen while Marie is an elegant porcelain beauty in pale blue and blonde, appearing dangerously delicate in her new rough and dusty surroundings.

Travelling by stagecoach to Jon’s smallholding, Marie and Kresten are savagely murdered by a pair of recently released criminals. It’s the first of many terrifically tense scenes, played with minimal dialogue.

Though Jon exacts bloody revenge and kills the men, one of them is the brother of a vicious gang leader called Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).

He in turn wants revenge and holds the local townsfolk of Black Creek accountable until Jon and Pete are apprehended, leading to a violent and gripping showdown.

With a brisk running time of 91 minutes, the dialogue, direction and editing are delivered with a considered economy, consistent with Mikkelson’s controlled central performance.

In a role requiring her not to speak, Eva Green  shows what a strong actress she can be as Madelaine, Delarue’s disfigured sister-in-law.

Jonathan Pryce is as excellent as ever in a small but pivotal role as Mayor Keane, who in the manner of rural communities, doubles as the undertaker – an essential role in many Westerns.

Former footballer turned thespian Eric Cantona plays a henchman known as The Corsican, glowering from under his beetlebrow with menace.

His appearance is only incongruous if one’s strongest memory of him is turning out for Manchester United. But we should remember he’s been acting for the best part of twenty years. There’s nothing wrong with his performance; he’s pretty good.

Co-written by the director, the script is sharp with clear character motivation and well constructed conflicts fuelling consequences of greater acts of violence.

The violent personal dramas play out on a broader social canvas; the church and the law are under the control of Delarue who is playing a far bigger game than the townsfolk realise.

There’s a commentary on how corporate America uses military mercenaries to bully elected representatives, the law and the Church and serve their own interests over that of the people.

None of this slows down the action but enhances it by providing context and motivation. A dead body is deposited next to a pool of oil, the only building left standing in a burnt-out town is the bank.

As well as missing legs and tongues, there are many mutilated teeth and eyes befitting the biblical criteria for justice. Fire and water are elemental punishments, adding to the well-crafted Old Testament atmosphere.

Cinematographer Jens Schlosser burns his daytime colours. His rain lashed night-times have ferociously heavy and apocalyptic shadows.

Costume Designer Diana Cilliers dresses the cast in a variety of colours to reflect the swathe of languages and accents we hear from the throng of immigrant nationalities.

Just as in the 1960’s the non-Hollywood talent of Sergio Leone could use his perspective as an outsider to rejuvenate a well-worn genre with his operatic Spaghetti Westerns, so too does Levring.

Although operating on far smaller scale, he re-invigorates the genre with a passionate energy and fresh location. The magnificent South African landscapes are an imposing spin on using the venerable Monument Valley as a backdrop to the action.

Not only do they have the requisite majestic expanse but they hark back to the era of John Ford and John Wayne, steeping The Salvation in cinematic history and modern day excellence.