Tomahawk (Short Film)

21 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Seeing Eric White’s short film “Tomahawk” for the first time at the Ozark Foothills Filmfest in Batesville, Arkansas a couple weeks ago, I had already known that 13 minutes were cut from the film’s original running time (which was about 30 minutes in length). While I liked the version I saw fine, I did notice a few inconsistencies in its storytelling and maybe it was because I knew there was a longer version, but I did feel the story was somewhat rushed and couldn’t help but wonder what was removed from this “festival cut,” because I could tell White was onto something here. It was well-made, gripping, and had a hell of an ending.

Having met and conversed with White at the festival, and also thanks to a suggestion by filmmaker Sarah Jones (whose “John Wayne’s Bed,” already reviewed by me, was also shown at the event), I managed to gain a DVD copy of the original 30-minute version of “Tomahawk.” That was the cut that White had always preferred in the first place, and as if unsurprisingly, it’s better.

“Tomahawk” is a gritty, violent revenge tale about an ex-convict, John (Steve Helms), who returns to his hometown in Tennessee. Armed with a tomahawk (hence the title), he sets out to deliver revenge on the people who sent him to prison.

There’s a quite curious change between the 17-minute cut and the 30-minute cut. The 30-minute cut tells a story is more shrouded in mystery, as John’s actions are rough but not with much motive. That is, until midway through, when the truth becomes clear. This is pretty interesting, because this buildup makes John seem like the antagonist for the people he’s after—clean-looking Bobby (Shayne Gray), Sheriff Murray (very well-played by Bob Boaz), and a few cops—only to discover in the midsection of the film that they have done him wrong in a horrible way, and thus we sympathize with him.

The 17-minute cut, on the other hand, opens with a quick scene with the “supposed protagonists” that indicates a sense of guilt that sort of lets on that they’re not to be trusted. While John is seen as the rough, vagrant outsider visiting this small town for his own personal business, he could be considered a heroic figure strangely because of that little beginning. With the 30-minute cut, something doesn’t feel right with this guy from the start. He comes across as an Anton Chigurh type feeling the need to cause anarchy and chaos, and that’s what he does for the people he comes across—including two passersby and two obnoxious guys in a bar, before moving on to the people who would turn out to be his true targets.

And for the record, I’m not spoiling much of anything—the 17-minute cut is the version that’s being shown around in film festivals, and so people will already know that John is the hero throughout the film. The most notable changes include the cutting-down of key action sequences, and even the deletion of the whole sequence set in the aforementioned bar. I understand that the action scenes had to be toned down for a shorter running time, and it seems as if the bar scene is rather pointless in a way. But I preferred it when the action went about its own pace in the original—the buildup works, the tension is present, and it makes it seem all the more satisfying.

I mentioned that “Tomahawk” was a well-made film, and it is impressive. The action scenes (including a nicely-done chase near a railroad) are very well-done and believably violent to the point where the hits, kicks, punches, strikes, etc. seem very real. The cinematography is terrific, and there’s a consistently tense tone that flows throughout the film.

And here’s a fascinating story element—save for a couple cops, the people who have wronged John in a big way don’t seem like villainous types. In particular, Bobby seems like an ordinary family man that you wouldn’t suspect of doing something as horrible as revealed. What’s also chilling is the notion that even though Sheriff Murray knows very well that Bobby has done what started this deadly crusade, he actually agrees to assist him in a way out.

The ending…damn. What can I say? Without giving too much away, after an inevitable action climax involving an intense showdown between John and crooked police, I was surprised how strong the final outcome turned out to be. It ends with a sense of psychological terror after the final decision is made about how this is all going to turn out, followed by an unending shot of the victor walking off alone. That last shot is played silently as the end credits roll, without a music score. It allows the audience to sink in everything that has occurred. It either works or it doesn’t; it worked for me. That same impact was present in the 17-minute version too, but with everything else in the 30-minute cut, it’s even more powerful because of everything else that has occurred earlier.

I like the 17-minute “festival-cut” of “Tomahawk” fine; I believe the 30-minute cut is even better. But either way, both versions show the true craftsmanship that was put into it—Eric White proves to be a capable filmmaker; Lyle Arnett Jr.’s cinematography is great; and the hard-edged music score by Kerry Loveless and Avery Moorehead is excellent. So I’d say see either version for its own merits.

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