Buckle up brothers and sisters, this is a LOOOOOOONG one.
In the wake of the success of R-rated superhero movie Deadpool, a number of UK film writers and bloggers were seen to ask what more, if anything, that film could have done to receive an 18 certificate from the British Board of Film Classification. These are people who have not seen Bone Tomahawk or Green Room.*
Bone Tomahawk and Green Room contain a type of screen violence that has been uncommon in American cinema for a long time. Sure, Deadpool is a violent film (although it’s R rating is a much down to the profane language and gross out humour) but it presents violence that holds only to the laws of Tex Avery physics. It is CG enhanced and played for humour. You cheer along, gasp, wince a little bit, and laugh afterwords. It’s comfortable. It’s fun.**
Bone Tomahawk and Green Room are far from comfortable in their depictions of violence.
The year’s second western to star Kurt Russell and his impressive facial topiary, Bone Tomahawk is set in the 1890s. The film begins with a brutal scene in which a pair of outlaws bushwhack a party of men as they sleep. As they rifle through their victims’ belongings the pair are startled by the sound of horses and flee into nearby foothills where they stumble into what appears to be a native American burial ground and are themselves attacked by an offscreen foe.
One of the outlaws escapes and some time later drifts into the town of Bright Hope where he comes to the attention of Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a shoot first question later lawman who does just that and throws the man in his jail. As the local doctor is indisposed (drunk as a skunk) his capable assistant Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons from TV’s Banshee) fills in. When dawn breaks Hunt discovers his jail empty. Mrs O’Dwyer, a deputy, and the wounded outlaw have been abducted in the night.
Hunt forms a ‘posse’ to head out into the badlands to rescue the captives. Their only clue is a bone arrowhead found at the scene. A local Native American man they call ‘The Professor’ recognises the arrow and delivers a dire warning, the captives will soon be dead and anyone who seeks them out will soon share their fate. There is a clan of a ‘diseased bloodline’ living in the hills in a place that he calls ‘The Valley of the Starving Men’.
Nonetheless, Hunt is duty bound to ride out and will be accompanied by elderly deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and lethal dandy John Brooder (Matthew Fox). Brooder claims to have killed ‘more indians than anyone’ something that The Professor notes is an ugly claim. “It’s not a claim, it’s a fact” is Brooder’s reply.
The distraught husband of the kidnapped woman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) also insists on joining them despite having a broken leg. He is permitted, but Hunt is clear that the mission will be dangerous, they are heading into challenging territory known to be infested with brigands. O’Dwyer will need to ride hard and will not be allowed to hold them up. Time is of the essence.
This is the set up for a trail western, first time director S. Craig Zahler’s witty and literate screenplay is full of brilliant character building and a real sense of humour and warmth that makes the events to come in the last act of the film all the more excruciating. Zahler is a pulp novelist and musician and his dialogue is amongst the finest I have heard in any movie in 2016. We spend a lot of time in the saddle with his characters and come to care about them. Even the openly racist character of Brooder is given colour and shade becoming an actual human being rather than a stereotypical well dressed cad.
There has been some debate as to whether the film has racist elements, in particular in the portrayal of the cannibals in the hills. Zahler takes care to have an actual Native American character explicitly distance the antagonists from Native American culture in the first act. And in subsequent sparse and impactful appearances they come to appear something both less than and more than human, owing more to the mutant clan of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes than the Apaches of a film like Ulzanna’s Raid.
Racial tension runs through the film. The posse is disturbed at night by two Mexicans trying to creep into the camp. During a lengthy dialogue scene Hunt attempts to ascertain if their intentions are hostile, but Brooder guns them down in cold blood. When O’Dwyer (who has slept through the incident) asks Chicory what just went down he is dryly told that Brooder just gave “two Mex’cans a lesson in manifest destiny”.
Bone Tomahawk has also been described as a genre mash up, a western that becomes a horror film. From pre-viewing buzz I anticipated something like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, a film that begins as a tense crime thriller before taking a sudden left turn and becoming a splattery horror film. In that film there is a sudden generic fracture, it quite clearly shifts genres in a single scene. Nonetheless while Bone Tomahawk contains horror elements, they are integrated into what is actually a very classical western framework. The shift in the film is not one of genre but of tone. The film sets out where it will be going in its opening scene, then takes some time getting back there. The startling aspect of Bone Tomahawk is in the absolute savagery of the violence of the final act.
Bone Tomahawk builds to a set piece scene of horror and abjection that is comparable in strength to the kind of graphic horror featured in the notorious Italian cannibal films of the 70s/80s. It is not often that I find myself looking away from the screen, but I briefly did. The sequence is extended, graphic, and unsparing in detail. The victim is aware of what is going to happen to them and subjected to psychological stress and torture and then physical stress and torture. It is a very protracted and painful scene, genuinely disturbing in a way that Deadpool would never, ever want to be.
Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi have created a film that is agoraphobic, placing the protagonists in vast and hostile environments. The Western has always been one of the most visual of film genres, but in contrast to The Revenant which while a harrowing tale was never less than visually gorgeous, Bone Tomahawk’s landscape moves from the banal to the ugly. As a character remarks “You know, I know the world’s supposed to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part.” The cannibalism of the cave dwelling clan may be a response to the barren landscape, which is mostly scrub and scree. It is not a place where humans should dwell.
Zahler’s script has been dubbed sub-Tarantino by some, this more than unkind. The literate and witty dialogue is genuinely funny in a similar approach to Tarantino but the characters are more finely drawn and less caricatured than those of Django Unchained or The Hateful 8. The cast rise to the material, Russell’s Sheriff Hunt is a man with a strong sense of duty, stoical even as the situation gets progressively worse. Patrick Wilson is perhaps a little urbane to quite convince as a cowboy, but as the trail takes a toll on his wounded character he is completely convincing in expressing physical and spiritual pain. Matthew Fox has a lot of fun with his gentleman cad character – a kind of racist version of Doc Holliday – but what could have been a moustache twirling bad guy is given depth by script and performance. It is Richard Jenkins as Deputy Chicory who walks away with the film, an apparently fragile but decent old timer with a propensity for long winded verbal digressions. Chicory seems ill suited to the trail. However, as the journey progresses we find out more about a civil war past that informs the character’s pacifist tendencies. Female characters are largely relegated to the background (including a cameo for Blade Runner’s Sean Young) but perhaps the most telling line in the film is given to Lili Simmons’ character when she notes that the real problem in the West is not the brigands or the hill dwelling troglodytes, but “the idiots”. It is entirely clear she means all of the men.
Bone Tomahawk is an excellent western, and a superb first feature.
Green Room is markedly a different type of film than Bone Tomahawk. At 132 minutes Zahler’s western moves at a deliberate canter, whereas Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal contemporary thriller motors at a (literally) breakneck pace with a relentlessness that makes its 95 minute running time an ordeal.
In Green Room a punk band called The Ain’t Rights get semi-accidentally booked to play a matinee gig in a rural dive bar run by neo-nazi skinheads. While the gig passes more or less without incident and the band collect their $300, by sheer bad luck they see something they shouldn’t and find themselves barricaded in the venue’s dressing room with murderous neo-nazis massing outside intent on ensuring they don’t leave alive.
Green Room is writer/director Saulnier’s third feature. his previous film was the highly regarded revenge thriller Blue Ruin (not least by myself). Blue Ruin was impactful but sparing in its depiction of violence, clearly unwilling to repeat himself here Saulnier sends the needle straight into the red. A very well written opening act establishes the individual characters of the band members: reserved bass player Pat (Anton Yelchin); loudmouth singer Tiger (Callum Turner), sarcastic guitar player Sam (Alia Shaukat); and drummer Reece (Joe Cole) who true to type is a coiled spring of aggression with a bad temper. There are scenes that anyone who has spent time in a band, or writing about bands, will recognise. Bad food, crashing on floors, earnest fanzine interviews. These scenes are played with a warmth and humour that is obliterated when the shit hits the fan.Once the band finds themselves trapped in the titular green room the film puts pedal to metal. If Bone Tomahawk is an acrophobic’s nightmare, this is a suffocatingly claustrophobic experience. Green Room does not quite reach the same heights of graphic gore Zahler’s western attains, but on balance it is an even more stomach churning experience. Rather than a few carefully mounted set piece scenes of grue, the violence in Saulneir’s film is constant and relentless. The director slides a a serrated blade between the ribs and twists it for an hour. When violence comes it is sudden, brutal, and shocking. Characters who are set up as if not heroic, then at least formidable, meet sudden unforeseen ends or psychologically crumble. No one is a hero.
Whilst extreme, Green Room’s scenes of violence feel uncomfortably real. When the band initially attempts to strike back at one of a neo-nazi’s keeping them captive they are uncoordinated and ineffectual not quite committing to what is already a desperate fight for survival. Captive with them, and far more aware of the desperate nature of their plight is a female skin Amber (Imogen Poots) whose attitude to their shared predicament is one of detached nihilism.
When the bar’s owner and white supremacist leader Darcy Banker (an extremely cast against type Patrick Stewart) arrives on the scene this is already a situation spinning out of control for both sides. Darcy has reasons for wishing the band to be quietly dealt with and not simply shot on his premises, leading to a temporary stand off that allows the trapped band and Amber to try and formulate an escape plan.
The sinister Banker has a similar hold on his acolytes (the most committed of whom can be identified by the red laces in their combat boots) as Stacy Keach’s fascist leader in Tony Kaye’s American History X. Banker’s bomber jacket wearing stormtroopers are mostly just kids who have been seduced by a sick ideology that tells them they are in some way valued. Probably they come from shitty backgrounds and Darcy is the first adult to treat them as having worth. Whatever, it doesn’t excuse their actions, but it lends later scenes of the band fighting back with equal savagery an extra frission. There are no fist pumping moments of triumph in Green Room, the violence is sickening no matter who is meting it out and to whom.
I had a powerful visceral reaction to this film in my guts. From the opening cover song that The Ain’t Rights play in the club until the end credits rolled, it felt like my intestines were coiling ever tighter. This film made me feel physically sick and the sensation lasted for hours afterwords.
As with Bone Tomahawk, some have characterised Green Room as crossing over into the horror genre (the BBFC who have passed it at cert 18 call it a ‘horror thriller’). It is certainly horrific, and with an intensity that makes it stand apart from contemporary thrillers. But Green Room is not a horror film. Saulnier’s uncompromising movie sits comfortably alongside intense 70s thrillers like Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, John Boorman’s Deliverance, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. But it also shares DNA with more disreputable exploitation films like The Exterminator. These were movies that took on the mainstream entertainments of the day (which were already violent) and unable to compete on budget and star power, ramped up the brutality.
The cast commits completely to their roles, The Ain’t Rights convincingly feel like a band and importantly look like one too. Anton Yeltchin is not an actor who has particularly caught my attention before, but he is superb in this, sallow cheeked and looking the part. Alia Shawkat as the band’s guitar player has made a brave move from her most recognisable role as Maeby Fünke in the sitcom Arrested Development. It took me ten minutes to recognise Imogen Poots as Amber with her girl skin haircut. I’d never have thought her an actress capable of looking lethal with a box cutter but she wields it with deadly earnestness. Patrick Stewart as the main villain of the film is cast way against type (at least from his well known roles as Professor X or Captain Jean Luc Picard, although fans of Shakespeare will know he is very capable of playing villainy). Amusingly he does not even attempt an accent, simply dropping his usual RSC inflections. But why not a Yorkshireman as a Neo Nazi? As Darcy’s right hand man, Blue Ruin star Macon Blair is a welcome contrast to the more meat headed tattooed skinheads. A more cerebral (in comparison) character, and one like Darcy, who recognises the situation is out of control on both sides of the barricade.
Green Room is extraordinary, one of the most hideously violent films I’ve seen since The Raid, but like Bone Tomahawk with an emphasis on realism and pain. I have grouped these two films together because of the proximity of their releases. This is not a movement. I am not trying to write some bullshit manifesto for ‘SAVAGE CINEMA’ (writers love to coin a new genre, here’s a tip, things like Deathwave or Mumblegore are almost always complete bollocks coined to generate clickbait headlines and masturbate journalist’s egos). However the intensity of each film’s violence, and their commitment to portraying violence as something truly terrible mark them apart from the general PG-13 flow of recent cinematic entertainment.
Bone Tomahawk was released in the UK on February the 19th by The Works, a DVD release will follow later this year.
Green Room is released on UK screens on May the 13th by Altitude Entertainment.
*As an aside, ’R Rated’ became a badge of honour in the marketing of Deadpool, leading to the frankly ignorant hype that it was the first R-rated comic book movie or even just the first R-rated Marvel movie. Neither statement is true. Ralph Bakshi’s animated film Fritz the Cat – based on the Robert Crumb comic strip – was MPAA X rated in 1972. Films as diverse as Blue is the Warmest Colour (MPAA NC-17), A History of Violence (MPAA R rated) and The Road to Perdition (MPAA R rated) are all based on graphic novels and precede Deadpool. As for pure Marvel films, there are three R rated movies based on The Punisher, and the entirely R rated Blade franchise. In fact Deadpool isn’t event the first R rated Marvel movie Ryan Reynolds has been in, that honour goes to Blade: Trinity. If you contributed to that stupid hype hang your head in shame and allow me to introduce you to a little thing called Google.
**There is nothing wrong with fun violence, it is one of the great pleasures of the movies. And I like Deadpool.