The Great Silence (1968) [Western Wednesday]

My favorite stories tend to put the heroes and the bad guys in the same room long before the final showdown. Early on in The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci puts his three most combustible characters in the same stagecoach, which will take them to the little town where the final shootout will brutally go down. And boy, I do mean brutal: the resolution is so alien to what casual audiences are used to, Corbucci was forced to shoot an alternate ending, which I believe is lost by now. Any copy you can track down today will have the original ending in all its hard-hitting, don’t-give-a-fuck glory.

The hero of the film is Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who had his vocal cords cut when he witnessed his parents’ murder as a kid. Legend says they call him Silence because the silence of death is the only thing that remains in his wake. His holster is a wooden box, which can also be attached to the end of his pistol like a makeshift rifle stock. Instead of killing bad guys, he shoots their thumbs off so they can never hold a pistol again. According to Wikipedia, Corbucci got the idea for a silent gunslinger from Marcello Mastroianni, who always wanted to do a western like this, but couldn’t speak English.

Then there’s the sheriff who’s played by Frank Wolff, an American-born actor who made his career out of foreign films and westerns like this one. He’s an honest, scared, and competent lawman who’s investigating the town over allegations that its bounties aren’t ethical, even though they’re technically lawful. The character immediately distrusts the latest addition to his stagecoach: a bounty hunter named Loco who cheerfully ties his victims’ corpses to the roof. It’s obvious Loco is a man who didn’t give a damn about the law until it became corrupted enough to protect him.

Here’s the thing about Loco. When you create a hero as bad ass as Silence, you’ve gotta work hard to come up with a worthy villain. So Corbucci cast none other than Klaus Kinski. Director David Schmoeller made a short documentary about the legendary difficulties Kinski was known to create on movie sets. At the end, Schmoeller suggests a reason why directors like Werner Herzog continued to work with the maniac: few actors were as compelling.

Here’s the full vid:

Please, Kill Mr. Kinski from Tromadance Vol. 1

When Loco kills the husband of Pauline (the beautiful Vonetta McGee of Blackula fame… or infamy, depending on where you stand on blacksploitation films), she sells her house to the banker who’s responsible for creating the corrupt bounties. She plans to use the money to hire Silence so that he can set things right. Silence, who’s fallen in love with Pauline, tries and fails to goad Loco into a shootout. The problem is, Loco is as clever as he is sneaky. He refuses to partake in a shootout until the conditions favor him 100%.

It’s a slow burn to the explosive ending, which makes it clear the filmmakers are unwilling to dilute their message for commercial viability. This is probably the reason the film never saw a proper release in the United States until a few years after DVD players came along. What I just watched was one of those earlier DVDs and it only makes me hurt more for a proper Blu-Ray release.

Ultimately, I’ve enjoyed other Corbucci films a little bit more for keeping true to the entertaining style and convention of spaghetti westerns, but few have been as masterful—or risky—as this one. It’s a great movie because it’s harder to digest than traditional films. Love it or hate it, you won’t be unaffected.

Western Wednesday: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

I used to know this movie like the back of my hand. Unfortunately—and here’s a good case for never watching a movie more than twice in a single year—I eventually saw it so many times I grew bored. That was right around the time I discovered spaghetti westerns and The Wild Bunch, which made the film seem a little too sleek in comparison. Fast forward to my thirties and I’ve forgotten just enough of it to enjoy it again, but not quite enough to love it.

I know I voice my hatred for certain aspects of the Hollywood machine a lot, but that’s misleading. I love Hollywood when it’s at its best. When you’ve got Robert Redford and Paul Newman, you’re getting damn close to the territory I prefer. I don’t care about celebrities, but I love movie stars. Here are two of the best.

Like so many westerns, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is set in a time when the gunslinger is becoming obsolete. In The Wild Bunch, the main characters knew it the moment they laid eyes on their first car. In this film, Butch and Sundance should have known it from the very moment they acquired their first bicycle. After botching their latest train robbery, the duo realize the rules of the west have changed and they somehow never got the memo.

Knowing there’s no way they’ll be able to survive if they continue their old ways, Butch and Sundance find themselves at a crossroads. They reluctantly discuss their options around a table owned by Sundance’s patient love interest, who probably would have been Butch’s love interest if he’d been the one who met her first. Butch, who’s always been the know-it-all of the duo, suggests they should pack up and head for greener pastures in Bolivia. But when they arrive they find their destination is little more than abandoned farmland and dust.

There’s a reason William Goldman’s screenplay is analyzed to death in film seminars and screenwriting classes. The story, which equally indulges in and pokes fun at the idea of myths and legends, has a lean simplicity to it. The banter between the characters is a not-very-distant ancestor to the kind of humorous dialogue that appears in Hollywood blockbusters as recent as The Force Awakens. The filmmakers quickly establish the main characters, the female lead, and the gang whose leadership is hanging by a thread. Minutes later, Butch and Sundance are on the run, chased down by an all-star team of man-hunters whose faces we never see.

That first half of the movie deserves its classic status and then some.

Unfortunately, the best scenes all occur before the midpoint. I’m referring to the long sequence of chase scenes in which they’re desperately trying to throw the unseen antagonists off their trail, crossing desert, rock, and water to do it. They occasionally pause to watch their pursuers from afar with an even mixture of dread and awe. “Who are those guys?” they ask repeatedly.

Nothing else after it really compares until that final, iconic freeze frame.

Despite its bottom-heaviness, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is still an entertaining popcorn flick. That’s pretty much all I feel like saying about it at this point in my life, which is part of the reason I like stories so much—they can change as much as I do. Maybe I’ll love it again the next time I see it, but I don’t plan on watching it again for a very long time.

Western Wednesday: The Revenant (2015)

Note: I know I said I would watch this a lot sooner than I did, but I got sick the week it came out and the following week shit happened, as it’s wont to do this early in the new year. 

I’ve always wondered why we’re drawn to stories in which a hero we can relate to is put through absolute hell. I think the first stories ever told were about untrustworthy companions, rival tribes, and dangerous animals like bears and wolves—the very things The Revenant is about. It’s in our nature to wonder “What if…?,” especially when the terrifying scenario involves us personally. What if your family was murdered? Would you have the strength to avenge them? Or, as one character puts it, is revenge best left to “the creator?” I love a good revenge story as much as the next guy (calling The Revenant a revenge story is kind of misleading, by the way), but I think I would have liked this movie a lot more had it been about how something like that can eat you up. I think you might agree after you see it in its entirety. It would have made the conclusion a lot more powerful.

I have mixed feelings about featuring this film for Western Wednesday. It’s no more a traditional western than a horror film. In fact, the best horror movies I’ve ever seen have more in common with The Revenant than the impotent shit that passes as horror today (this week’s dishonorable mention is The Forest, the latest in a long line of PG-13 horror films starring attractive blondes who will never be actual movie stars). I don’t know why it’s so compelling to see good people put through terrible situations, but it is, which is why I don’t understand moviegoers who shrug off the entire genre as an invalid art form. Yes, ninety percent of horror movies suck, but ninety percent of anything sucks. (See: Sturgeon’s Law.)
What makes The Revenant so much more compelling than a lot of horror films is Leonardo DiCaprio’s willingness to get the shot. There is so little cheating here: when you see him plunging into freezing-ass water or crawling through the snow without a stitch of clothing, it’s really him and it’s all real. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won the Best Director Oscar only last year, wants us to know it’s real, too; he doesn’t bother using a different take when his actor’s breath—or blood—gets on the camera lens. It’s one of the most authentic films ever made and I’d say DiCaprio is a shoe-in for Best Actor if the Oscars didn’t inexplicably snub him every chance they get.
It’s the early 1800s and Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and his “half-breed” son are trackers in a fur trapping outfit. Fellow trapper John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) has a problem with Glass because he’s the kind of blowhard who has a problem with everyone. When another character suggests their lives are worth more than their pelts, Fitzgerald argues his life is his living and his living just happens to be pelts. The money isn’t just more important to him than his own life, but the lives of everyone. 
Fitzgerald is, without a doubt, the biggest asshole in movies this year. People like him still exist to this day and we all have met them—they’re usually found seeking easy-to-obtain positions of pseudo-power in home owner associations or the DMV when they can’t get their own radio talk shows. You don’t love to hate him like most villains, you just fucking hate him, period, the way you hated Nurse Ratched and Dolores Umbridge. Those characters are so easy to hate because they’re the kind of confident idiots you know in real life who simply know what’s best and everyone else is a fucking moron. When Glass is gruesomely mauled by a bear, what Fitzgerald thinks best is suffocating him so that he can no longer slow the others down. When Fitzgerald’s son tries to stop him, he stabs the boy in the belly and hides the body. This incident incites Glass to crawl out of his shallow grave and seek revenge.
The Revenant is a beautifully nasty movie, shot on lenses so wide the vast landscapes almost curl around the edges. There’s at least one ham-fisted visual metaphor, which you wouldn’t expect from an Oscar-winning director in his prime, but overall I enjoyed it a little more than Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, if only because Iñárritu forces himself to step much farther from his comfort zone… again. Yet beyond its lead performances, the only thing The Revenant really has going for it is its technical accomplishments. I don’t think it will win Best Picture, if only because Iñárritu’s last film did, but it’s almost good enough to deserve it.

Western Wednesday: City Slickers

“All America lies at the end of the wilderness road, and our past is not a dead past, but still lives in us. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us the wilderness still lingers. What they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” 

— T.K. Whipple (Also quoted in the beginning of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove novel, which is where I first read it.)

Billy Crystal’s character is thirty-nine, an age which seemed like a million years away when I first saw City Slickers twenty-five years ago. Like Logan’s Run, it’s a movie I can better appreciate now that I’ve got some perspective on this thing called age. I’m kind of going through a phase in which I’ve been inexplicably drawn to reading and watching westerns damn near exclusively. I’ve never considered myself much of the camping type, but taking two weeks off to drive cattle sounds a lot more attractive than a trip to Disney World.

I get this movie. I get it because it gets it. What is “it?” I don’t know. I guess it’s rather like Curly’s one thing. Don’t click that link if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

if you think you recognize the kid you’re right, it’s him

Crystal’s best friends, played by Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, have talked the neurotic hero into running with the bulls in Spain. It’s suggested that every year they concoct semi-idiotic vacations and drag their unenthusiastic wives along with varying results. Fast-forward a year later and their latest scheme indulges a western fantasy, in which well-to-do city folk can pay money for the opportunity to become genuine cowpunchers. Crystal is reluctant to go until his wife points out that he’s forgotten how to smile. Even then he goes along cautiously because the stakes have suddenly been raised: he thinks that if he doesn’t remember how to smile in that two-week span, he’s a lost cause.

The biggest fault with City Slickers is it just isn’t all that successful as a comedy other than some obviously improvised Billy Crystal lines. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly deep character story—so much so I found the three main characters to be a lot more three-dimensional than the Oscar-winning portrayals in Terms of Endearment, which I also revisited this week. In that movie, I found the brash ex-astronaut was little more than a brash ex-astronaut while the overcritical mother had surprisingly little range beyond that.

In City Slickers, though, the leading characters are so much more than their summaries. Stern, who often pretends he’s fallen asleep so he doesn’t have to speak to his overbearing wife, has a lot more wants and fears than one would expect from a character who more or less fell into the role of a career grocer. Kirby, who’s an even better actor than Crystal, is much more interesting than the playboy owner of sporting goods shop we’re introduced to—particularly after he reveals why he’s so weird about women. A lot of comedies would have dwelled on his strange job, but this one doesn’t.

some of the best stuff in the movie

Then you have Curly, who’s played by Jack Palance. He’s one of my favorite actors for his uncanny ability to chew the scenery with complete believability (I still think he would have been a better Joker than Jack Nicholson). In lesser comedies, he would have merely parodied his former screen persona for a cheap laugh. Yet City Slickers isn’t content with being routine because he warms up to the lead about halfway through. It’s actually quite refreshing what they do with Palance, despite the fact they completely undo all that hard work in the terrible sequel. (I’m not kidding: in City Slickers 2, it turns out that Curly has a lost twin brother. Zzzzzz.)

So yeah, as a comedy it’s kind of a dud—the knowing music can be as insistent as a bad laugh-track while a lot of the minor characters are stupidly over-the-top, particularly Stern’s wife whose face is often filmed with a bit of a fishbowl lens to exaggerate her supposedly comedic features. But although I’ve seen much funnier comedies than City Slickers, few of them were as good. I feel prepared for thirty-nine.

Western Wednesday: The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight is long, slow, and gratuitously violent. And I loved every minute of it.
While I still think Pulp Fiction is probably the most important film to come out in my lifetime, my favorite Tarantino flick is Inglourious Basterds. That opening scene, between Hanz Landa and the poor dairy farmer, is one of the tensest, saddest, funniest, and most beautifully patient things ever burned to film. With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino tries to sustain that note for nearly two hours in the wide open and snow-covered scenery of Wyoming—or whatever convincingly desolate countryside is actually standing in for it.
For the most part he succeeds. The conclusion is so climactic I still smile every time I think about its diabolical simplicity. It’s about the bloodiest thing I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s not quite as bloody as the Crazy 88 scene from Kill Bill, but let’s just say this is the stuff Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger live for. 
The film opens on Major Marquis Warren, a bounty hunter played by Samuel L. Jackson. He’s sitting on a saddle which is mounted to a pile of dead bounties. His horse has died from the cold and the corpses he’s sitting on amount to a few thousand dollars—if he manages to get them back to town. Luckily, a stagecoach comes his way and he finagles a ride with the man in the back: John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), who’s handcuffed himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman wanted for murder. She doesn’t seem to mind much when Ruth beats the shit out of her, which is often.
Along the way they pick up a suspicious traveler, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims he’s the new sheriff. Ruth—who begins the film paranoid, only to grow more so by the minute—reluctantly agrees to take him into the stagecoach. Unable to beat a blizzard, they hole up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a cozy outpost with a stocked bar and a chess game by the fireplace. As you’ve seen in the trailer, it’s Ruth’s opinion that at least one of the eight people in the haberdashery is planning to free his prisoner. When they ask Domergue herself, she says, “You’re right! Me and one of them fellas is in cahoots! We’re just waiting for everybody to go to sleep… that’s when we’re going to kill y’all.” The way she says it is both hilarious and chilling and manages to tell her captors nothing more about their predicament.
There’s a very obvious reason the director uses music produced for John Carpenter’s The Thing: surprisingly, that film has even more influence on Hateful Eight than the spaghetti westerns that so heavily informed Django Unchained. I’m not saying anyone was complaining about Kurt Russell’s involvement—I certainly wasn’t—but it makes even more sense when you see the thinly disguised references to the tension and paranoia Carpenter orchestrated nearly thirty years ago. Imagine The Thing without an alien and a western setting and you’ve got a great idea of what kind of movie The Hateful Eight is.
It’s nice seeing Kurt Russell play the kind of overconfident dork he played in Death Proof because I have a feeling the actor will soon fade into straight-to-VOD obscurity—not because he sucks, but because modern-day Hollywood sucks. But it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals the show with her over-the-top, yet honest performance—honest in the way she seemingly flubs what she means to say and struggles with a face that’s been permanently fucked up by the other characters, who frequently treat her like a punching bag. I don’t think Samuel Jackson is quite as good as he was in Unchained, but that’s like saying spaghetti and meatballs isn’t as good when you heat up the leftovers—it’s still pretty damn good. 
The rest of the cast, including Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, and Michael Madsen, are perfect, and while I won’t say this is among my favorite westerns of all time, it also took Leone two westerns before obtaining perfection with The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. With any luck, Tarantino will do at least one more western before his career is over, which he claims is relatively soon, and I’ve got a hunch such a trilogy will be something we’ll talk about for years.
So you want gleeful madness? You’ve got it right here. Maybe more than you bargained for.

Western Wednesday: My Name is Nobody (1973)

If The Ridiculous Six wasn’t your cup of tea, then how ’bout a different western comedy?

The year before Blazing Saddles released, the spaghetti western was dead. Sergio Leone had already made what many consider to be the best western, period, and his assistant director on the first two Dollar films, Tonino Valerii, had gone on to direct Day of Anger (I plan to feature the Blu-Ray edition when I get my hands on it) which was another fine example of the genre.

So Leone did what few directors would do: he arranged to have Valerii direct a send-up of the films they helped define. Also in on the joke is Ennio Morricone, whose wonderfully illogical score plays like a parody of his previous works. You get the feeling these guys weren’t mourning the death of the spaghetti western, but merrily digging the grave.

one of the best scenes in the film

Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) sits down for a shave at the local barbershop. The man behind the razor intends to slit his throat. As the blade inches towards Jack’s jugular, his pistol slides out from underneath his gown. He presses the barrel against the man’s crotch and tells the would-be assassin, in his velvety, trademark voice: no funny business.

The rest of the gang ambush Jack, who guns ’em down with his lightning reflexes. Jack’s a bit of a legend around these parts, which means he frequently has to dispatch men who’ve come to kill him. They all want to go down in history as the men who defeated the great Jack Beauregard. Meanwhile, Jack just dreams of quietly retiring to Europe.

In the aftermath of his latest shootout, a bystander asks, “Is there anyone faster?” The reply: “Nobody.”

Enter Nobody, a childlike wanderer played by Terence Hill (They Call Me Trinity, Django Prepare the Coffin). Three bad guys try to dupe him into delivering a booby trapped picnic basket to Jack and he knowingly agrees. When the aging gunslinger asks Nobody what’s in the basket, Nobody says, “Oh, this? I reckon it’s a bomb.” To which Jack replies, “I reckon you’re right.” Nobody tosses the basket back to the bad guys and yells, “He didn’t want it!” and the basket explodes.

Meanwhile, a group of bandits known as the Wild Bunch (an intentional reference to Sam Peckinpah, whose name also appears on a grave marker) are laundering stolen gold by passing it off as the production of a dummy mining operation. Although Jack assumes Nobody is just another gunslinger who’s come to kill him for a shot at fame, Nobody reveals that he idolizes gunslingers and wants Jack to take on the Wild Bunch single-handedly. That way Jack’s name can go down in the history books.

I’m not sure if a spaghetti western should be called cute, but My Name is Nobody is pretty damn cute. For the most part it works. Like Two Mules for Sister Sara, which I featured a few weeks ago, it’s not exactly what I’d call a classic, but it’s far from being a stinker and a helluva lot more memorable than most movies. Then again, maybe it’s only memorable because we’ve seen some of these scenes a hundred times before.

Western Wednesday: The Ridiculous Six (2015)

Yeah, I know the internet has unanimously decided to hate Adam Sandler, but if I’m going to take this feature seriously, I feel like I’m going to have to review all the new westerns.

Going into it, I knew nothing about The Ridiculous Six other than the fact my Netflix app has been shoving it in my face for the last few days. Having seen the trailer in the time since, I’ll say what I usually say about trailers: avoid it all costs. If I had seen the trailer beforehand, I never would have watched the movie.

It’s kind of silly to discuss this plot, but here goes. It’s the usual SNL-alumni setup, in which the goofy main character has to raise enough money to save _____. It’s like the former cast members of the show are all issued the same template upon graduating, filling in the blanks like a game of Mad Libs. This time Sandler is an orphan who was raised by American Indians. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? There’s a gag early on in which Sandler’s character takes on a gang of men who all wear eye patches. The cartoonish antics are so embarrassingly bad, a toddler might have written it.

The Left-Eye Gang

One day Sandler’s estranged father, played by Nick Nolte, wanders into camp and confesses he’s grown tired of his life as an outlaw. He’s dying, he says, and wants to do good for a change. Unfortunately, the gang he runs with, which is now led by Danny Trejo, isn’t going to let Nolte retire peacefully. They show up to kidnap him and it’s up to Sandler to steal enough money to pay his ransom.

For the first time in his life, Sandler’s character cuts off his hair, dresses like a white man, and hitches a ride into town with the intention of becoming a bank robber like his old man. There he meets a woman who reveals she knew Sandler’s father. It turns out Sandler has a half-brother and, in perhaps the least surprising twist in movie history, the brother is played by Rob Schneider. Schneider’s character is a Mexican who loves his pet donkey. The donkey, of course, has a flatulence problem because it’s not funny enough that Schneider looks ridiculous riding around on it. This proves to be a lot funnier than the scatological humor Sandler has employed in the past. At one point the donkey farts and Schneider says in his ridiculous accent, “That was a dry one… it means we will be having dry weather tomorrow.”

Soon after employing the donkey’s gastrointestinal skills to rob a bank, the boys meet yet another long lost brother played by Taylor Lautner. There have been Will Ferrell movies which won me over for no other reason than the characters were really, really stupid. (I love watching John C. Reilly try to out-dumb Ferrell, even if I don’t enjoy all of their movies.) Lautner’s character would have fit in just fine with Ferrell’s brand of comedy. It’s clear by then that each major character Sandler meets is going to be a long-lost brother. The rest of the gang includes Lost’s Jorge Garcia as a wild desert man who never learned how to speak, much less read or write; Luke Wilson, who’s responsible for Lincoln’s assassination; and Terry Crews, a piano player whose facial expressions can steal entire scenes. I was pleasantly surprised by how much funnier the movie becomes after the gang assembles.

Steve Zahn is great as usual

If it’s beginning to sound like I liked this movie, it’s because I did. I’m also the only person I know who enjoyed A Million Ways to Die in the West, which might tell you to avoid my opinion at all costs. But consider it this way: Sandler has been making shit for so long, he inevitably got good at it. This is shit of the highest caliber. To compare Six to Sandler’s early attempts at movie-making, in which the entire gimmick was his character ranges from inexplicable baby talk to bipolar rage, is unfair. It’s leagues ahead of that mumble-mouth bullshit. Believe it or not, this is one of the best casts I’ve seen all year. These six actors are somehow pretty great together.

I know the exact moment the film won me over, too: Steve Zahn, who plays the lazy-eyed owner of a trading post, wants to join The Left Eye Gang, so named because new recruits have to pluck their own right eyes out with a sharp spoon. Unfortunately, Zahn’s right eye is his good eye. He tries to reason with his recruiters, but they’re not having it. Zahn’s brainless devotion to the ritual—and the reaction shots of the men watching—is bizarrely hilarious. There’s another scene involving a headless body that’s similarly dark and funny… and extremely stupid.

What I liked most were the bazillion cameos, which is another reason to skip the trailer. A lot of these actors are so unrecognizable, it’s fun trying to figure out who they are. And when you finally figure out who’s playing Mark Twain, you discover a stroke of genius. Seriously. I’m in gleeful awe of this casting decision. Don’t look it up, either, because you’ll just spoil one of the weirdest comedy moments of the year.

my favorite comedy scene in a long time

If, like me, you enjoy the antics of Beavis and Butt-Head because of their extreme stupidity, you might enjoy The Ridiculous Six. But if you’re determined to hold your hatred for Sandler—a quiet, soft-spoken guy who seems agreeable enough in interviews and promo material—then you’re going to hate it.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but Adam Sandler’s latest movie kind of requires an open mind.

Western Wednesday: Bone Tomahawk

one of the rare trailers that’s light on the spoilers… it’s still better to avoid it, though

I honestly don’t think there’s been a better year for movies in my lifetime. Who would have predicted we’d get a Mad Max film that wasn’t just a routine reboot? A space film that makes up for the disappointment of Interstellar? A promising Star Wars sequel?

And it’s not just the movies that have already been released. Three or four serious contenders for Best Picture are all releasing on Christmas. Even more unbelievable: two of them are westerns.

I doubt 2015 is the year westerns make their triumphant return to popularity, but it won’t be because Bone Tomahawk sucked. Keeping in line with other past-their-prime westerns such as Open Range, the 3:10 to Yuma remake, and The Proposition, Bone Tomahawk borrows more from John Ford’s day than Sergio Leone’s. It just treads a lot more lightly on its depiction of American Indians than Ford ever did.

For a film to show up so quietly on VOD, it’s way better than you would expect. Twenty years ago it would have been advertised extensively before dominating the box office for at least a week or two. And nothing about the film’s quality suggests it was made by a first-time director. There’s a scene so graphic and shocking towards the end, people would have talked about it the way they talked about the big reveal in The Crying Game or the leg-cross in Basic Instinct, if only the film had a wider release.

Bone Tomahawk begins with a couple of outlaws, played by Sig Haig and David Arquette, who make their living looting and murdering campers in the middle of their sleep. After slitting the throats of their latest victims, they stumble onto the sacred burial ground of the “trogdolytes,” a small sect of inbred cannibals. After the cannibals kill Haig, Arquette flees to a nearby town in which Kurt Russell’s character, the sheriff, shoots him in the leg. That’s kind of the sheriff’s thing: shooting bad guys in the leg.

Samantha (Lili Simmons) is a townswoman who’s recruited to operate on the outlaw’s leg in the jail cell. Meanwhile her husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), stays at home recuperating from a leg injury of his own. Samantha asks John Brooder (Mathew Fox) to escort her to the jail; Brooder’s a bit of a blowhard who brags about how many Indians he’s shot, a rather large figure that includes men, women, and children. Brooder doesn’t quite see eye to eye with many of the characters, least of all the town’s likable but kind of slow “back-up deputy,” played by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is almost unrecognizable in his elderly man costume and makeup. In most movies, this character wouldn’t have survived the first third of the film, but Bone Tomahawk cares about its players too much to make them suffer predictable deaths, even though it ultimately puts them through hell.

When the sheriff wakes up the following morning, he discovers the outlaw, Samantha, and the real deputy have been kidnapped in the middle of the night. There’s also the dead body of a stable groom, whose wounds lead them to figure out who’s responsible for the kidnapping. The sheriff, the back-up deputy, Brooder, and Arthur then set out to search for the cannibals’ cavern. It’s in the dangerous open spaces of the wild west that the movie stumbles into horror territory.

I found myself saying “oh shit” under my breath an awful lot.

I can probably count the number of films that legitimately terrified me on one hand. Bone Tomahawk is one of them. A lot of movies, especially westerns, coddle the audience to the point that even a child can reliably predict who’ll end up dead and who’ll be left standing by the end. With Bone Tomahawk you realize, early on, that absolutely no one’s safe. I’m not saying it’s just a suspension of disbelief thing. I’m saying that when the hero of the film starts out with an injured leg, you realize this isn’t the paradigmatic western where differences can be solved by a shootout.

That shocking scene I mentioned earlier is something so sick and unbelievably twisted, Bone Tomahawk will likely be one of those movies more people discover the older it gets. I just can’t imagine a movie this incendiary can come and go so peacefully. See it today and recommend it to everyone you know so that it can obtain its inevitable cult status sooner rather than later.

Western Wednesday: La Resa dei Conti (The Big Gundown)

Lee Van Cleef’s first leading role

Last week I ordered Grindhouse Releasing’s multi-format edition of The Big Gundown. When the package arrived, I marveled at the raised lettering on the slip case. Something about the packaging is immediately inviting, which is strange because I usually don’t care about the cases themselves, just the movies. I didn’t expect what was inside, either. I imagined I’d be getting two or three discs, but four? With this edition, you’ll get the Morricone soundtrack, the American version of the film on Blu-Ray and DVD, and the Italian-language director’s cut, La Resa dei Conti with optional subtitles as opposed to dubbed voice work. I’ve listened to the soundtrack five times by now. I’m listening to it right now.

It’s perfect.

I haven’t been this happy with a movie purchase in years. If you’re a fan of the film, you won’t be disappointed, either. Just stop reading this and buy it now. Sure, there are a few shots early on that look like they were lifted from a fuzzy source, but for the most part, the director’s cut is the definitive version and 98% of it looks better than anything I’ve seen in the last year or so. As far as presentation goes, it’s the best Blu-Ray in my collection at the moment.

The movie opens on a trio of outlaws trying to outrun the famous bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef). What they don’t know is he isn’t following them. He’s already well ahead of ’em. When they fall right into his trap, he tells them they either get the gun or the rope. Meanwhile, he calmly proceeds to choose a single a bullet for each of the men.

Fast forward to a few days later and Corbett is attending a wedding party where a Texas railroad tycoon (Walt Barnes) convinces him to run for senator. Corbett agrees to settle down, but only after going on one last bounty. After all, news of a fugitive child killer has spread to the party.

Soon after the manhunt begins, Corbett thinks he found the guy. The suspect draws on him and Corbett guns him down. Corbett confesses disappointment, saying, “I thought he’d be smarter.” Naturally, the movie can’t end there and it turns out Corbett killed the wrong guy (conveniently enough, the wrong guy was wanted for murder anyway). We learn the guy he’s really after is smarter in a scene in which he gives Corbett the slip.

Grindhouse Releasing provides four discs and an informative booklet about the film

The name of the bounty is Cuchillo and he’s played by Cuban actor Tomás Milián, who I think appears in makeup to make his skin darker. The filmmakers want you to believe Cuchillo is a master escape artist, but here’s one of my few complaints about the film: Corbett becomes uncharacteristically incompetent whenever he catches up to Cuchillo. The tricks Cuchillo plays on Corbett just wouldn’t work on the kind of godlike bounty hunter who can arrange a trap ahead of the outlaws who think he’s behind them. There’s a line later in the movie that kind of explains why Corbett gets downright stupid at times, but it’s a little bit of a cheat.

The box art says Leonard Maltin called The Big Gundown the best spaghetti western without Leone’s name on it. I probably wouldn’t agree, but it’s up there—like, way, way, way up there—among the absolute best. There are plenty of great scenes, beautiful camera work, and a ton of production value. I am unconditionally in love with this film, particularly Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-Ray presentation. It’s worth every penny.

Western Wednesday: Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

the trailer contains a massive spoiler, so here’s the Morricone theme instead

“Everybody’s got a right to be a sucker once.”

It’s the classic opener: the gunslinger stumbles upon a damsel in distress in the middle of the desert. This time the gunslinger is Clint Eastwood and the damsel is Shirley MacLaine. The two of them play Hogan and Sara. After Hogan guns down the group of would-be rapists, Sara puts her clothes back on.

Hogan’s thrown for a loop when he sees the habit and the rosary. He doesn’t feel right leaving a nun all alone in the desert, so he agrees to take her with him, even after he discovers Sara’s in deep shit with the French for providing money and support to Mexican revolutionaries.

Two Mules for Sister Sara is a comedy that sometimes forgets it’s also a western until it overcompensates in its climax, which is jarringly and uncharacteristically violent. The rest of the film is pretty funny, sure, but it must have been disappointing to see it during its original run, only a year after the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is really funny and a lot more evenly cooked.

The running gag: although she’s a nun, Sara says and does some unlikely things. After Hogan helps her climb into a tree, he sincerely apologizes for touching her bottom. “It’s no sin that you pushed me up the tree with your hands on my ass,” she says. Hogan’s double-take is priceless.

But that’s pretty much all it is: funny. There’s some amusing dialog, good writing, and a touching moment or two, but it’s little more than a solid entertainment that feels like it’s playing it a little too safe. It comes from a time when westerns were like Marvel movies and the studios were just as reluctant to adjust the formula as they are today. That so many people seem to consider Two Mules for Sister Sara to be some kind of classic sets the bar for classics just a little too low. It’s a good movie and I’ll probably even watch it again someday, but I personally wouldn’t say it’s great.

And that’s just fine.