Bone Tomahawk, 2015.
Directed By S. Craig Zahler.
Starring Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette and Sid Haig.
Four men embark on a dangerous journey to rescue one of their womenfolk from a tribe of native cannibals.
Taking cues from John Ford’s classic The Searchers, S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut Bone Tomahawk applies the same format of man-on-a-mission adventure through the dangers of the wild terrain in search of a missing person, and injects it with substantial dosage of grim, uncompromising brutality, to create a western that’s bold, bleak and occasionally horrific.
Prior to Bone Tomahawk, Zahler plied his trade as an author and screenwriter, having penned a succession of critically acclaimed novels in the realms of westerns and crime fiction. Despite selling a number of screenplays, the only one that came into fruition was Asylum Blackout, an overlooked tour de force of gore and mayhem set in a prison where the inmates escape their confines and unleash bloody havoc. However, with Bone Tomahawk riding on a wave of momentum after being heaped with praise in recent months, he looks set to become a sought-after household name.
Kurt Russell (sporting a moustache so charismatic and imposing that it becomes a character in its own right) plays Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a hard-boiled lawman who leads a band of highly strung anti-heroes into the great unknown to find and retrieve the wife of injured Arthur (Patrick Wilson) from a clan of cannibalistic cave dwellers. Despite being in a state of physical decomposing, the desperate husband insists on accompanying them, and they’re joined by loyal old deputy Chicory (played by an unrecognisable Richard Jenkins) and the racially-motivated gunslinger Brooder (Matthew Fox), who just wants to kill native folk due to a deep-seated hatred and thirst for vengeance. The task is arduous, and there are plenty of dangers awaiting them before deadly caves of the Troglodyte tribe are even in sight.
Despite being marketed as a horror western, Bone Tomahawk isn’t quite the genre-mashing spectacle people might be expecting. While it does contain elements of horrors most visceral traits, they are used sparingly – and to great effect, with every moment of dread, tension and gruesome violence being felt. For the most part, it’s a stripped back western in the vein of Ford and Peckinpah; a slow burn affair, where characters are introduced and established at a leisurely, confident pace. Our four protagonists have great chemistry together, a combination of camaraderie and conflict where egos clash frequently, and the only thing that binds their headstrong personalities is their common goal. Due to the strength of Zahler’s script, they all have an opportunity to get stuck into some meaty material and deliver performances on par with the best of their respective careers. Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins are standout highlights, but overall it’s a rare case where everyone is on top of their game.
For all its meticulous, unhurried pacing and lack of action, the final third provides a pay-off so unforgiving and savage it caps off the gruelling adventure with a blood splattered cherry covered in guts. There is one scene so sadistic and brutal that it will make even the most ardent gorehounds jaw drop in disbelief; whether they reach for their sick bucket or throw their hands up and rejoice is another matter. It’s of the same mean ferocity found in movies like Cannibal Holocaust, and the villains share that similar, primal mean streak of Ruggero Deodato’s seminal video nasty.
By no means is Bone Tomahawk a ‘pleasant’ watch. It demands the undivided attention of the viewer to fully appreciate it, but some may find it too slow for their tastes. It’s a rewarding film, but it’s also an exhausting one that requires patience. There are scenes which may feel bloated despite their cinematic splendour, but it’s only a minor criticism in an otherwise brilliant achievement.
To compare Bone Tomahawk with the recent minor resurgence of westerns, it’s up there with the very best of them. While The Revenant and The Hateful Eight have commanded the headlines and the box office, this one will endure longevity as a cult classic for years to come. Traditional western tropes are adhered, and heightened through a posse of engaging characters, a strong script and a confident command of the material – along with a hardened edge and willingness to roll up its sleeves and get dirty when it needs to. A boastful debut outing for S. Craig Zahler that will serve as a platform to bigger things should he choose to go that route, and one that suggests a filmmaker wise beyond his years. Fans of the genre will find it to be the right amount of familiar and refreshing, but it’s an endurance test those with weak stomachs should enter with caution.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
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