Destroy All Monsters: THEEB vs. BONE TOMAHAWK (Film School In A Can)
Spoilers below for Bone Tomahawk and Theeb.
Last week I caught up to S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk, which is being justly lauded as a terrific bit of under-the-radar genre storytelling well worth seeking out. I say "storytelling" instead of "filmmaking." As a piece of writing, Bone Tomahawk is indeed pretty special.
It's a great script (also by Zahler), with an ear for dialogue that wouldn't seem out of place in a less-profane episode of Deadwood; a clever saline drip of exposition that builds tension rather than removing it; and a nice cadre of characters to make their way across the Old West.
I'm not here to rain on anyone's particular Bone Tomahawk parade. Film fans in general and genre fans in particular are right to elevate it, if for nothing more than Kurt Russell's "What if John Wayne was a real person?" performance as the town sheriff.
I was heartily disappointed by the filmmaking, however. Bone Tomahawk seems to have no visual imagination whatsoever. The versatile crafting of clear, memorable images is a learned skill, and I tend to think it's unfair for us to expect filmmakers to emerge with strengths there right out of the gate; but even in the meat and potatoes of visual storytelling - choices of shots, guidance of the audience's eye, blocking to create and enhance story - Bone Tomahawk is astonishingly poor. And with a script this good, that's a shame. The direction leaves a lot of the screenplay's money on the table.
Contrast this with Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar's coming-of-age story about a Bedouin boy on a dangerous mission in the desert, which is trickling into release this week in the larger cities.
I have no reservations about Theeb. It's a lovely motion picture, expertly crafted, with a simple but effective story and a wonderful lead performance by young Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat.
I compare the two films simply because they're good examples that I watched in close proximity to one another, not because of any particular aspects of their stories or genres. Where Bone Tomahawk is an overflowing fountain of wry dialogue, Theeb has next to none. They both take place in the desert, but the former is a Western - by definition, a fantasy - and the latter is a period piece, with little ornament.
Comparing a sequence from each film, however, gives an object lesson in what a director actually does.
For Bone Tomahawk, let's look at the scene as the posse arrives at the Troglodytes' domain and begin scouting a narrow canyon to make their approach, before being ambushed by the enemy. (It's approximately 1:25:00-1:28:30, if you're following along on VOD.)
And for Theeb, since we're in a canyon ambush-y mood, let's watch the scene where Theeb and his companions are ambushed in the canyon by raiders. (I'll reiterate the spoiler warning here, as there will be some plot points mentioned in describing this scene.) It runs from 35:00-37:00.
The first question we, or the filmmaker, should ask when approaching a scene is, whose scene is it?
In Bone Tomahawk, there are three characters in the scene: Brooder, Chicory, and Sheriff Hunt. Hunt is in charge of the posse but Brooder is in the vanguard position for the group as we enter the canyon.
Also, as we will learn later in the scene, Brooder is essentially going to his death by entering the canyon. One could certainly argue that this makes it Brooder's scene, or that the entirety could have been treated as Brooder's scene by Zahler, had the director wanted to foreshadow Brooder's fate. Foreshadowing is a choice like any other, not mandatory, but suffice to say that Brooder is not the focal point that Zahler chooses for the majority of the sequence.
Zahler chooses to focus the first half of the scene on Chicory, arguably the least important character in the sequence at this point. The majority of the canyon scout either foregrounds Chicory directly, or shoots over his shoulder at other characters. Once battle begins, all three men are covered equally.
Now let's look at Theeb. Whose scene in it? Well, the film's title gives that away from the get go: it's Theeb's. He's the principal character of the film, and Nowar's direction almost never releases Theeb from narrative centrality in any given sequence of the film.
Further, the canyon ambush is a major turning point in Theeb's story; he will be deprived of his companions and left to fend for himself for the majority of the remainder of the movie. By any definition, then, the scene I'm describing is about Theeb. Nowar is aware of this, and describes the action almost entirely from Theeb's emotional (and sometimes visual) point of view.
The next question we should pose is: why these shots? What are they intended to convey, what purpose are they serving in the delineation of the overall story?
Returning to Bone Tomahawk. The sequence is constructed initially of two pieces of coverage: a master shot of the characters scouting the canyon, which settles on Chicory in the foreground, traveling with camera, while Sheriff Hunt follows (Brooder has exited frame left almost as soon as the shot begins); and an over-the-shoulder shot of Brooder scouting ahead, framed - as I mentioned - over Chicory's shoulder.
We cut back and forth between these two angles at roughly 7-second intervals throughout the bulk of the first two minutes. Once Brooder disappears into the canyon, we also go to a low-angle shot of Hunt, checking his watch (Brooder has told them that if he doesn't return in 30 seconds, there's trouble).
Then we emerge onto a plain, and shots diversify: a wide shot behind the characters showing the troglodytes' cave above; a perpendicular three-shot of the men looking camera left, which is interrupted by the troglodytes' attack; and then a rapid barrage of coverage as each of the three men is injured in turn.
Now, the pragmatic answer to "why these shots" in this case is probably: they were the shots the team was able to accomplish on the day. It's fairly simple coverage throughout, demonstrating the team's progression through the canyon, and the chaos of the attack.
There may not have been time, producing Bone Tomahawk, for the kind of cinematic detail-work that would have elevated the sequence; and ever since Saving Private Ryan, at least, a disappointing number of filmmakers continue to believe that unchoreographed panic with no sense of screen direction is the best way to convey the horrors of combat.
Not so with Theeb. Watching the canyon ambush here, we are clearly in the hands of specific shot design - pieces assembled with an eye towards how they will be edited together - rather than simple coverage of staged action.
There are too many shots in the scene to describe in detail (although it is fully a minute shorter than the scene in Bone Tomahawk), but here are some general trends:
- Low angles of the adults - nearly every shot of the men, whether it is from Theeb's visual POV or not, conveys the child's sense of participating in a world much bigger than him;
- Traveling shots behind Theeb - the camera is consistently behind Theeb (and his older brother) as they dash through the canyon, so that we are traveling through, and discovering, the space as he is;
- Cluttered close-ups of Theeb himself - we cut repeatedly back to Theeb reacting to the gunshots and violence, the camera at his level, in "dirty" compositions that tend to have an adult's torso in the foreground, obstructing/crowding part of the shot.
Observe, also, the shot lengths. "Quick cutting" might be spoken of derogatorily in some circumstances but it's used to great effect here. Shots in which guns are fired - whether offscreen, killing a member of Theeb's party, or onscreen, fired at Theeb - are crucially short, as though we/Theeb are instinctively ducking and closing our eyes at each thunderous boom. This has the effect of heightening the horror of the combat (no image is lingered upon fully enough to allow complete processing), and, more importantly, puts us entirely into Theeb's mindset. This being his scene as described above, that's very important.
And finally: what are the shots doing? Are they building tension, releasing tension; scoring or underscoring a theme; supplying information (or withholding it) (or misdirecting it); or all of the above, plus more?
We could take these two scenes apart in a variety of ways, but let's focus on tension.
Both of these sequences are surprise attacks, so the tension is not in the moment the attacks begin (both attacks open with similar shots of characters being suddenly, unexpectedly struck by offscreen fire). In Bone Tomahawk, the scene's greatest tension is earlier, as Brooder scouts the blind canyon and leaves the sightlines of his colleagues.
Having focused on Chicory as we approached this moment, Zahler now shoots the wait for Brooder's signal largely from Hunt's point of view. Hunt steps into the foreground, his pocketwatch raised. This shot is then supplemented with the low-angle single of Hunt I mentioned above, reading his watch. We cut back and forth between the two shots.
Importantly, we never see a shot of the canyon into which Brooder has disappeared. We stay on Hunt, or the two-shot of Hunt and Chicory, the whole time, until Brooder signals that the canyon is safe. We also never see Hunt's watch for ourselves. Indeed, the entire sequence is played on exactly one thing: two medium shots of Hunt from the front.
Kurt Russell being the badass that he is, it will come as little surprise to any of us that Hunt is not exactly visibly shitting his pants at this point in the story. He is stoic and calm - some amplified breathing on the soundtrack, perhaps, the only guide to his anxiety.
Brooder signals with a rock and the tension, such as it is, is broken. The two remaining men proceed forward into the canyon. The battle scene unfolds, but is a total of ten seconds long - more of a melee than any sort of action sequence. It doesn't build any tension of its own, and serves merely as an accounting of what happens to the three men.
In Theeb, the tension of the scene is built around the outcome: what will happen to Theeb and his brother. Observe how Nowar builds this tension. The first time we follow Theeb and Hussein running from the gunfire, we are in a medium long-shot behind them, traveling with them as they run. The next time, we are in the same position, but much closer, highlighting the crucial detail - the brothers holding hands. (See above re: foreshadowing.)
With each subsequent gunshot, we cut to a close-up of Theeb immediately. There is blood splattered on his face. His eyes are wide with terror, and in many of the shots, he is scrambling for minimal cover behind a too-small outcropping of rock.
When the first gunman has been dispatched, Theeb and Hussein run out to their fallen comrades. The camera tracks behind them again - this time we are moving out into the open canyon rather than deeper into it, out into sunlight rather than shadow. Hussein stops to retrieve a rifle. We cut to a shot of Theeb from the front, isolated in frame, running; his panting overtakes the soundtrack. This shot is held for an extra beat, highlighting Theeb's fear.
The brothers try to mount a camel. A noise alerts them to three more bandits approaching. They run back into the canyon. We cut to a wide shot from above, looking out at the canyon mouth, as Theeb and Hussein hasten out of the foreground into safety, while three bandits approach from the deep background center on camelback - cutting off the only visible route of escape. Now the brothers are trapped, and the sequence's tension has arrived at its zenith.
These are two very different films made by two very different filmmakers under different circumstances, and both net out into movies I enjoyed watching. A piece of filmcraft like Theeb, though, reminds me of what cinema can actually do, the strange and beautiful alchemy of compositions, blocking, editing, sound design and visual storytelling that moves past impressionism and into dreamlike certainty. It's the sort of textbook movie that filmmakers should watch to dig deeper on what a director's job actually is.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.