It’s so obvious what Eli Roth is trying to do in Green Inferno. He wants to spend the first half of the movie establishing characters so that you’ll care about them in the second half of the movie when they run afoul of savages in the Amazon. But since he can’t manage anything in the first half of the movie that isn’t clumsy, trite, disingenuous, and blatantly manufactured, the second half of the movie has zero impact. It is nothing but a few unimaginative special effects. Fake limbs, fake blood, fake CG ants, fake horror, fake moviemaking. Roth doesn’t even have the grit to go as far as the Italian cannibal movies he’s supposedly homaging. The result is pointless trash without even the courage to be reprehensible.
Then there’s S. Craig Zahler’s brilliantly spare and wonderfully effective Bone Tomahawk. It’s no accident that it opens with familiar faces from Scream and House of a Thousand Corpses. But these guys are just the prologue. The first half of the movie that follows is actually so good that it’s the first two thirds of the movie. Here is a posse of perfectly cast actors enjoying whip-smart dialogue and effectively drawn relationships in a town forebodingly called Bright Hope. When Bone Tomahawk turns into a miniature version of The Searchers, four disparate fixtures of the American Western ride out against the savages. Kurt Russel’s wise and grizzled sheriff, Richard Jenkins’ surprisingly touching funny old coot, Matthew Fox’s coldly mysterious dandy, and Patrick Wilson as yet another too-good-for-his-own-good family man, this time as a literal cowboy.
The savages in question aren’t Indians, mind you. Bone Tomahawk dodges any distasteful historical realities by casting the savages as literal troglodytes. “They’re not my people,” snaps the only Native American actor in the movie, who plays a professor. This is a movie with its own rules, its own rhythm, its own progression. Four men descending from a Western into a horror movie. The violence will be simple, brutal, sudden, and thorough.
Zahler’s previous credits include the script for Asylum Blackout (my review here). That movie shares Bone Tomahawk’s brutality. But Asylum Blackout was directed by a Frenchman with a penchant for the excess of France’s new wave horror. For Bone Tomahawk, Zahler directs his own script with a measured austerity. Simple sets in bright sunlight. No sweeping vistas. The familiar sound of boots thudding on wooden floors and clomping hooves. Comfortable actors just doing what they do best. These are the things that make the second half of the movie work so well. These are the things that elude Eli Roth. These are the things that make Bone Tomahawk an unforgettable ride from one genre into another.
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