Bone Tomahawk and the Double-Edged Sword of Festival Buzz

By  · Published on October 27th, 2015

RLJ Entertainment

RLJ Entertainment

We’re going to talk about Bone Tomahawk in just a minute; first we have to talk about chocolate.

About a year ago, a group of researchers at Yale University devised an experiment to test the intensity of shared experiences. At the beginning of the experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned a partner and told to run through a series of small activities. Unbeknownst to the volunteers, their partners – research assistants in disguise – guided each experiment towards two “separate” tastings from a single bar of chocolate. The first tasting would occur while the research assistant was also eating chocolate; the second tasting would occur while the research assistant was engaged in some other activity. At the conclusion of the experiment, the researchers discovered that their subjects gave a higher score to the chocolate eaten in tandem with another person. The shared experience of eating chocolate – even without spoken communication – amplified the quality of the chocolate itself.

The idea that shared experiences are more intense than individual experiences isn’t rocket science, of course, but this is a valuable way to understand the bump that films can get coming out of a film festival. Every year, in cities across the world, movie fans and film critics gather for an opportunity to see new films before the general public. For many people who work in the industry – either in distribution or as film critics – these festivals double as a social gathering for friends and colleagues that may not see each other any other time of year. What results is a kind of perfect storm of amplified emotional responses. People are already amped to be the first to catch a highly anticipated film; mix in the psychology of shared experiences and you are looking at a unique situation for critics to, collectively, overrated or underrate the quality of a movie.

And this leads to situations where a film’s mainstream audience is left scratching their heads as to why a particular film received so much buzz on the festival circuit. For many people, this is an issue of expectations. Audiences spend weeks and months reading positive comments regarding an upcoming title; when they finally have an opportunity to see it themselves, the gap between what they’ve read and what they’ve seen can cause their opinions to overcorrect too far in the opposite directions. Meanwhile, film critics have moved onto the next batch of films in the pipeline. While audiences want to push back against titles that they felt were too inflated, critics are often put in a position to defend a review of a movie they have only seen once during circumstances designed to amplify the movie-watching experience. It may be simple – and not as fun when conducting a thorough box office examination come Monday morning – but it plays out time and time again.

The best film critics treat their reviews of any given film as a living dialogue with both their audience and the film itself. And as we move closer to a title’s limited or wide release date, these critics might even revisit their writing to see how their opinions have held up. Frankly, though, for many publications, there just isn’t the time or money available to hit anything but the biggest properties more than once. This means that mid-tier independent cinema – the types of films that need to stay ahead of the conversation in order to attract the largest possible audience – often suffer the most from this stagnated form of film criticism. People may wonder why a film like Steve Jobs struggled to find an audience when it received such positive reviews, but many of these reviews have been embargoed for almost two months by this point. The experts have already moved on.

That brings us, finally, to Bone Tomahawk. The film has inspired some wild arguments around these parts. Our own publisher and head film critic both saw it at Fantastic Fest and thought it was incredibly disappointing; I caught an empty screening at 10:35 PM on a Friday night and am ready to anoint Bone Tomahawk as one of my favorite films of the year. And what surprises me the most isn’t that I disagree with Rob’s review, but instead that I agree with nearly every single point that he makes. The film does have problems with pacing, demonstrating a lack of urgency that lasts for almost ninety minutes of its 130+ minute runtime. The film also struggles with its own inflated style of prose, leaving entire performances – most notably that of Lili Simmons as the kidnapped Samantha O’Dwyer – hung out to dry. Setting aside my own affection for the four male leads, there are many things about Bone Tomahawk that should have bothered me to no end, especially coming off the incredible hype from this year’s Fantastic Fest. So why did I enjoy it so much?

The more I think on it, the more convinced I am that Bone Tomahawk may be the rare film designed to confront its own hype – its own amplified experience – and set it to its own advantage. While I tend to agree with the reviews of Bilge Ebiri and Sean Burns in their praise of the film’s slow-moving character development, I also think that it is the negative reviews – the ones that damn the film as a hyper-violent third act with little going for it in advance – that might ensure its success with audiences. Even as we absorb the film’s deliberate pacing, we are never quite able to shake the knowledge that a monstrous third act is coming. This flips the script on how I measured the film’s progress. Rather than waiting for the film to develop any kind of internal momentum, I found myself measuring the progress of the film based on its proximity to Mondo horror. Instead of being pushed along by the story, I felt myself being dragged towards the final act in a dreadful malaise. It’s a very different process but strikingly similar results.

None of which is to say that Bone Tomahawk is only a victim (or a beneficiary) of festival hype; if that’s your only takeaway after reading this piece, then I’ve done a poor job in making my point. I will argue loudly to anyone who will listen that Bone Tomahawk is a wonderful horror-western that brings out the best in both genres. What you should acknowledge, though, is that not every audience will watch a film in a crowded theater with a pitcher of beer in front of them. How a film plays during festivals can often play a part in how it’s received at the AMCs of the world. Keeping that conversation alive – and looking at the ways a film’s reception might change in response to its own buzz – can only make us appreciate the good ones that much more.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)