Bone Tomahawk – Film Review by C.K. MacNamara
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Stars: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Mathew Fox, Richard Jenkins
The lovechild of The Hills Have Eyes and classic Westerns, with an added affair with Cannibal Holocaust, director S. Craig Zahlers genre blending bloodbath has all the hallmarks of a modern cult classic.
Set in the barren wasteland of the western frontier, the film tells the typical ‘kidnapped damsel’ rescue adventure, all the while subverting the audience expectations with sudden shifts into grisly horror and tinges of 80s grindhouse gore.
The film sets its tone from the get-go, with a duo of throat-slitting bandits ambushing a family in their sleep in the opening scene, before realising there are bigger monsters than them in the vast mountain wilderness. Cut to the frontier town of Bright Hope, helmed by a Kurt Russel no doubt dashing back and forth between his Sheriff duties here, and the set of the Hateful Eight in a flurry of hat changes.
The town is waylaid by the cannibalistic natives, hot on the heels of the fleeing bandits, whom they capture along with a handful of townspeople. Kurt Russel gathers a posse of misfits to give chase, to the heckles of the local Native American that they are all riding to their deaths.
[Spoilers] And that is the charm of Bone Tomahawk, it doesn’t shield its protagonists behind the aura that they must triumph: the men are told they are riding to their deaths, and then they essentially do. There is no rising to the occasion or the hero’s victory over evil; this is the unforgiving wilderness where every victory is pyrrhic. The pacing of the film is debatably brilliant: a long, slow burn of very little action, tension building as the film extenuates the absolute emptiness all around us. When the men finally meet the monster the fight is over in a few grisly moments.
Performance-wise there is nothing but praise to give; Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson give all the gritty morality and tortured expressions of straight-laced tough guys running up against something they cannot overcome, whilst Mathew Fox revels in his role as the man-in-the-white-suit out to kill Indians. But it is Richard Jenkins who gives the standout performance as the comic relief character Chicory, innocently grappling with the pressing issues such as ‘how to read a book in the bath without it getting wet’ in-between acts of cannibalism and torture.
There is real likability among the characters; rather than the Saw-esque ultra victims who live merely to play the part of voodoo doll to the audience’s sadistic whims, the characters of Bone Tomahawk exist all their own: The Indian killing Brooder clashes with the catholic cowboy Arthur, with the scatter-brained Chicory bantering away with Sheriff Hunt. The only caveat to the well-rounded personas is the notion these whacky and wicked caricatures all lived peacefully alongside each other prior to the films events.
But no matter its strengths every chain has its weak link, and in this monster flick it is the monsters themselves who wind up lacklustre.
In a world that has thus far stuck to showcasing the gritty-realism of frontier life, the sudden appearance of wailing monsters seems more silly than scary. Zahler attempts to add mystical elements to a story that has thus far prided itself on portraying the brutal realism of frontier living. Cave dwelling Troglodytes are plenty scary as it is without attempting to bizarre elements to further distance the “monsters” from the human protagonists. Rather, the emphasis should be in underlining how closely the cannibalistic natives resemble the so-called civilised men.
Additionally, the kidnapped damsel plot device that sends our heroes on their journey should be exactly that, and kept to a McGuffin minimum. Instead Zahler insists on a tacked-on romance, extenuating the weaker characters in a bloated early segment that risks alienating viewers not already committed to the story.
What we have then is a slow-paced character driven torture fest, as blemished as its characters and blending genres into a sharp-toothed bloodbath that will likely slink under the radar of general audiences, and into the realm of the cult classic.