Review: Bone Tomahawk

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DIR/WRI: S. Craig Zahler • PRO: Jack Heller, Dallas Sonnier • DOP: Benji Bakshi • ED: Greg D’Auria, Fred Raskin • DES: Freddy Waff • MUS: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler • CAST: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins

Somewhere in between The Searchers and Cannibal Holocaust lies the brutal, genre-dissolving Bone Tomahawk, an audacious directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t politely invite you back to the old west, it grabs you by the jugular and forces you. Although the film does contain elements of the horror genre, it still remains a true western and abides by western conventions. It’s a throwback to cowboys and indians, but without the social commentary or political correctness. The film is strictly aesthetic, strictly primal and strictly instinctual, and without a cloak of PC comfort, we the audience are left vulnerable. We’re not gonna be treated as docile, we’re gonna be tested.

Giving his mouth some T.O. after the chamber piece gab of The Hateful Eight, Kurt Russell ventures back west, this time as Sheriff Franklin Hunt of the small town of Bright Hope. That’s cheap, as there is nothing brightful nor hopeful in this nihilistic west. The film opens with a rusty throat cut as Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette), two vagrants with no elegance, who are making off with loot after brutally murdering some travellers. They get lost and wander into no man’s land and discover they are walking on an Indian burial ground. Purvis escapes and makes his way to Bright Hope. Buddy, not so lucky.

Bright Hope appears to be a nice, quiet, little town, similar to those introduced by a Rod Serling monologue before things get weird before the tumbleweeds pick up momentum. In Bright Hope, the tumbleweeds gain momentum when backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) sees the drifter, Purvis, burying something. Suspicion entails, Purvis is shot and arrested, everything seems right with the universe again. Bedridden during all the evening’s excitement is Arthur O’Dwyer, whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) nurses Purvis at the jailhouse. The next morning they’re gone. The wife, the drifter, a deputy, some horses, even the poor black stable boy gets gutted.

Thus unfolds the John Ford Searcheresque ride out to rescue the lives or bodies of their friends and loved ones. Saddling up are the solemn Sheriff Hunt, old-timer Chicory, crippled husband Arthur and fancy-pants gunslinger Brooder (Matthew Fox). Their local token Native American gives a stern word of warning before they ride out, claiming that the perps are a specific demented breed of Indian, who feed on their own mothers. Cheers for the confidence boost there Chief.

Zahler, who has four novels under his belt, delivers an excellent script. You can literally tick off the list of necessities that’s taught in screenwriting classes out of this movie.

In a screenplay, above all, conflict must be constant and it always bubbles to the surface throughout Bone Tomahawk as these four men with different worldviews constantly clash and argue. Whether it’s about marriage, murder or morals, there’s always an aura of tension. It also helps when we’re being thrown great lines like “smart men don’t get married” and “Saucy wouldn’t let no greaser get on top of her”. The film can be surprisingly tender at times too, but never comes close to being smarmy. It rolls on subtle, understated, until the final reel when all hell breaks out.

Brooder is the hot head of the four, and appears to be the most untrustworthy. He wears all white, rides a white horse and flaunts a fancy German telescope. He’s a dandy. In a generic movie he’d get his comeuppance for his bigotry and immorals. However, Zahler understand that this is too easy an archetype to simply chuck at the audience. Never judge a book by its cover rings true as the character of Brooder expands.  

On the journey, Zahler keeps the audience in western mode. That is until we reach “Injun” territory and we are now under the wing of a madman. A short battle ensues before our protagonists are captured and imprisoned in a cave with Samantha O’Dwyer and poor deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Oh Jesus, poor deputy Nick! Zahler has now flung us into horror territory. Duke, pack your winchester and ride off into the sunset because you’re not wanna hang around to see this….

Before seeing Bone Tomahawk I vaguely remember reading a line or two about its brutal and shocking violence, but the perverted slasher aficionado in me was all too nonchalant to pay any attention. There is a scene in that cave that will have jaws smacking floors in unison. The pure primal terror of the violence raises the stakes through the roof and we begin to empathise for the protagonists on a whole new level. This is “on edge of your seat” cinema right here and the faint hearted might wanna check out Deadpool or Triple 9 instead. Right after the camera cuts away from the entrails, there’s a close-up of Kurt Russell’s face and his expression evokes an overwhelming sense of hopelessness that leaves the audience with the completely shattered.

I can’t remember the last time a moment of such explicit violence had such an impact on a cinema audience. The image stuck in my head for days. I’ve noticed too, that although critics have warned readers about the violence, they haven’t condemned it. This comes down to the fact that one; the violence is done extremely well in terms of aesthetic and realism, and two ; Zahler’s movie doesn’t rely on the graphic violence, but rather builds up to the bloodshed by delivering us eclectic characters that we grow to care about. Whether it’s Russell’s modest mannerisms, Jenkin’s comic timing (channeling Walter Brennan) or Fox’s vanity, we slowly begin to gravitate towards them. So when the slicing and dicing starts we’re putty in Zahler’s hands.

This film will no doubt succeed in terms of cult status. It will more than likely be out of cinemas as soon as it hits, possibly build up a reputation through word of mouth that might develop during DVD  or VOD release. However, if you’re a fan of genre cinema or in the mood for something different then try catch it in cinemas. There’ll be few visceral and awe moments like it on the big screen this year. There has been a small resurgence of westerns over the past few years – Django Unchained, Hateful Eight, Slow West, The Salvation – but it will take a lot more than that to make the genre really viable again in today’s market. But if we get any westerns with half the originality and audacity that Bone Tomahawk has, I’ll lace up my boots and saddle up right now.

Cormac O’Meara

18 (See IFCO for details)

132 minutes

Bone Tomahawk is released 19th February 2016

 

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