Anti-Oscar Bait: A Case for S. Craig Zahler

Aaron Katzmarek

A very good friend of mine determines the quality of movies based on his trademarked and often imitated but never duplicated catchphrase “That’s Oscar Bait.”

If you need a translation, you’re not alone.  Basically, he is looking for anything within the movie that attempts not to increase the enjoyment for the viewer, but instead seeks out dramatic fanfare opportunities to wow the six thousand-odd members of The Academy.  Upon further consideration of his technique, I found that this is a fair method of determining a film’s worth.  I have been moderately to mostly disappointed in Hollywood’s penchant for redux, jump-scare horror, and overdone sequels. The market is saturated with movies that consistently miss the artistic mark, in terms of writing, plot, story, character development – basically everything not associated with FX, gratuitous violence or queasy camera tomfoolery.

With the goal of avoiding Oscar Bait as a handy reference guide, I would like to bring forth a key witness in the People of The United States vs Crappy Film: S. Craig Zahler, a relatively unknown writer/director in mainstream cinema.  After seeing two of his recent films, I felt a certain responsibility to get the word out and let people know there is a voice in the darkness who believes in the art of storytelling and creativity with a camera.  We have found a champion!

Bone Tomahawk

Fully engrossing from darkened beginning to gruesome end, Bone Tomahawk delivers a powerful flow of a true road style western.  We learn about the characters based on their interactions with each other, the environment, and an obscure moral code that permeates the film – we’re not expected to just know the characters because they connect to a comfortable and easy-to-place stock personality so often used as a crutch in films.  Instead, Zahler takes the time to draw out the “why” for each role.  It’s genius; it’s an art form.  It’s why I’m writing this article.

Add in a sinister science fiction element and you have a whole pile of dynamic characters in conflict throughout the film.  Kurt Russel delivers a career defining performance as Sheriff Hunt, Patrick Wilson does just as well as the frantic husband, and Sid Haig and David Arquette provide worthy cameos.  I don’t often throw the “it’s a must see” line out at folks, but this movie is just that.  Be aware of some terrifically graphic violence at the close of the movie.  Not for the faint-hearted.  [EDITOR’S NOTE: This movie is nuts! It totally came out of left field to blow me away and, yeah, there are some surprises in store for the stout of heart.]

Bone Tomahawk was nominated for a plethora of awards and nominations in 2016, ZERO of which came from the Academy.  If you’re with me on the whole ‘Oscar Bait’ idea, this trailer alone is worth a gander.  Do not pass on watching this movie.  It’s available for rent in all your usual places.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Grab a cold six pack and settle in for this one.  Vince Vaughn.  Man… He is one scary motherf***er.  I can say with fair confidence I have seen every movie that features Vince Vaughn, from leading man to fleeting appearance, but I was shocked by the amount of energy and talent Vince put into his role as Bradley Thomas, the warrior resigned to his fate.

Zahler wrote and directed this gem, and he was able to extract the purest form of Vaughn I have ever seen grace the cinema.  I was blown away.  The plot and story move slowly and surely, carried exclusively by Vaughn on his journey from cuckolded husband to mafia muscle to inmate.  Along the way, he maintains his morality and never-ending faith in his chance to live a comfortable life as a regular guy.  He might have to knock a few heads in, but hey, that’s what he’s best at.

Again, this one has a horrifically violent and brutal ending, and is not for the squeamish.  The thing of importance here is that the violence is used as a tool to further the plot, develop the character, and impress upon the audience the gravity of the situation in which our characters find themselves.  Still, don’t feel bad if you look away for a few moments as this film comes to the inevitable finale.

The trailer for Brawl in Cell Block 99 is just the tip of the iceberg.  Not a stitch of Oscar Bait found in the 132 minutes of absolute perfection.  As such, I have a feeling this beauty will largely be ignored by the Academy.

Additionally, ladies and gentlemen, Zahler has a film in post-production called Dragged Across Concrete.

Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn. Two detectives who find themselves immersed in the shady underworld after a disgraceful incident while on-duty.  The trailer has yet to surface anywhere, but rest-assured, when it pops, you can find it right here on!

3 thoughts on “Anti-Oscar Bait: A Case for S. Craig Zahler

  • Jon Jones
    December 11, 2017 at 11:25 PM

    Great recommendations, Aaron! I watched Bone Tom ahawk tonight! Great movie ! Weird twisty ending.

    • Aaron Katzmarek
      December 12, 2017 at 3:46 AM

      Thanks Jon. Glad you liked it. I’m looking forward to Zahler putting more flicks out- he can tell a damn good story.


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