Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette
Running time: 132 minutes
Imagine if the leads of The Searchers suddenly rode onto the set of The Hills Have Eyes. That’s the scenario in Bone Tomahawk. While there aren’t that many films that dabble in the western-horror sub-genre, those that do tend to be trashy B-movies. Bone Tomahawk excels by taking itself mega seriously, twisting a rescue scenario with a brutal final act that has images which will stay with you long after the credits roll.
A panicky outlaw (David Arquette) arrives in the small town of Bright Hope, having been on the run for eleven days ever since he and his ‘former’ partner in crime (Sid Haig) set foot on the burial ground of an indigenous tribe. The tribe made their displeasure known by killing his partner and they’ve now followed the outlaw all the way to Bright Hope. They kidnap him, along with a young deputy sheriff, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and the town’s doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). As the people of Bright Hope learn what has happened, four men decide to set off on a rescue mission. They include the town sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell); his deputy and former soldier Chicory (Richard Jenkins), who implores Hunt to bring him along as if to prove his worth; Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who is struggling with a broken leg, and gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), who brags about having killed more Indians than anyone else in the town.
In learning more about the tribe, the town’s local Native Indian, whom they dub the ‘Professor’ (Zahn McClarnon), warns them that they are dealing with ‘Troglodytes’; a spoiled bloodline “who rape and eat their own mothers.” He further raises the dramatic tension by telling the men that they have “no chance against any number of them.” It’s the kind of butt-clenchingly induced talk which puts across just how bad things are going to get for the rescue party. This is indicated by the fact that no one actually saw these ‘Troglodytes’ enter the town, so they have no idea what they look like, let alone what exactly they’re up against.
By the time the four men ride out, the film has skilfully built up the suspense as well as these ‘Troglodytes’, making them out to be some kind of unstoppable clan. It becomes clear that Bone Tomahawk is not going to play like a typical ‘cowboys save the day’ western. The impending sense of death that likely awaits these men is unshakeable as you can’t help but feel that some (maybe all four?) of them are not going to make it back alive.
Bone Tomahawk is the feature film debut of writer and director S. Craig Zahler, (he’s also co-credited for what little there is of a musical score). Having previously written the western novel Wraiths of the Broken Land and the crime thriller Mean Business On North Granson Street, he has revealed that he sold over 20 screenplays in Hollywood, none of which were ever filmed. With Bone Tomahawk being a low budget independent film, Zahler has also admitted that he got to make the film he wanted to make, with no studio interference. If this had gone through the studio system, then the end result would have been heavily toned down. The film has already gained notoriety for its extreme violence which the camera does not shy away from (it was not rated by the MPAA in the US). Be warned that throats are cut, limbs are torn and intestines are seen.
The strength of Zahler’s script attracted a stellar cast. His four leads are intently watchable, yet compared to what you’d expect from the western genre, they do not bond or share jokes over the fire during their time together. They each have different ideas on how to best go about their rescue mission and so reluctantly try to get along.
Kurt Russell looks like he’s just stepped out of The Hateful Eight (though Bone Tomahawk was shot first), as Sheriff Hunt follows the typical traits you’d expect from a good natured sheriff, bravely putting the lives of others before his own. Patrick Wilson’s Arthur spends most of the film in constant pain trudging around with a broken leg, pulling through with a performance that’ll probably have some of you wincing in pain with him. He also loses his temper a fair bit, but unexpectedly admits when he is wrong and apologises to his fellow men. Matthew Fox is brilliantly arrogant as John Brooder, boasting about his intelligence and about how many Indians he has killed. It says a lot that he sits away from the men when they first eat around a fire. Richard Jenkins steals most scenes as Chicory, a constant talker who often brings up topics that bear no relation to the situation at hand, but in doing so, manages to prove some point (“I know the world’s supposed to be round,” says Chicory to his fellow men during the journey, “But I’m not so sure about this part”). Lili Simmons doesn’t really have a lot to do, apart from being the damsel in distress, but makes the best out of a limited role. Sean Young, James Tolkan and Sid Haig make minor but welcome appearances.
Zahler purposely stretches out the three day journey in the mid section. In keeping the focus solely on the four men, the time is filled with Chicory babbling on about something (such as reading in the bath or giving his “official opinion”) as well as typical shots of cowboys riding and walking across the desolate land. It does drag a fair bit, yet the lack of civilisation and having most scenes played without a musical score adds to the eerie suspense and the sense of isolation. Their meandering trek does run into a few tense disruptions, notably one moment where they encounter people that might be friend or foe, the result of which also causes friction amongst the men.
That Zahler has managed to deliver so much with his first feature film instantly makes him a name to watch. While some points are left ambiguous, it is the mix of genres that makes Bone Tomahawk so compelling to watch. If you feel you can stomach the violence then you’ll be rewarded with a slow-burning tale of the slightly weird west, one that’s unpredictable, fresh and exciting.
Bone Tomahawk opens in the UK on 19 February 2015.
Review by Shalimar Sahota