BONE TOMAHAWK Review: A Gruesome Cannibal Western

Bone Tomahawk gets a pass based on Kurt Russell’s epic moustache alone. There’s plenty of other elements that work in this Western/Horror pastiche but between this and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight, it’s clear that Russell feels at home rocking period-specific facial hair that amplifies his badass bonafides. 

Bone Tomahawk uses Russell’s screen history (notably his Wyatt Earp from 1993’s Tombstone) as shorthand to establish his character, as well as freely mixing talky Tarantino-esque dialogue with shockingly brutal violence to create an off-kilter and wholly unique Western.

From the opening moments featuring bandits played by David Arquette and genre favourite Sig Haig (House of 1000 Corpses, Kill Bill Vol. 2), it’s clear that the Wild West depicted here is brutal and bloody. As they casually slit the throats of their victims with workmanlike motions, Arquette and Haig are set upon by an otherworldly menace – cannibalistic albino Natives that strike with alarming speed.

Arquette’s hapless criminal makes it to the relative safety of a small frontier town, one presided over by the steely Sheriff Hunt (Russell). Unfortunately he’s brought the cannibals with him, leading them to a veritable buffet. The movie ably switches gears between an authentic Western and darkly effective horror movie in the lead-up to an attack that sees deputy Nick and prominent townswoman Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) abducted into the night.

Writer/director S. Craig Zahler takes his time establishing this world and its inhabitants, building tension before that inciting incident occurs. Sheriff Hunt is gruff but effective, aided by his bumbling “backup deputy” Chicory (a nearly un-recognizable Richard Jenkins in old man makeup). Cowboy Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson, again portraying an emasculated man as in Watchmen and Little Children) insists on joining the posse to rescue his wife despite a broken leg, while wildcard gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox) brings his expertise and racial biases to the group.

After a brief debate at the local tavern, the four men saddle up to complete a lengthy ride in the hopes of rescuing Lily and Nick. Working against them is their combustable group dynamic and the looming threat of the formidable “Troglodytes” they’ll have to face. Zahler certainly stacks the deck against them, using Arthur wounded leg in multiple scenes to show just how much an injury like that would slow him down. There’s a gruesome resetting of the bone that takes place in excrutiating detail, as Arthur’s condition goes from bad to worse.

Its an interesting inversion of a trope (the heroic cowboy) – one of many unconventional turns that Zahler takes. Brooder is a virulent racist out to kill as many Natives as possible after his family was slaughtered at the hands of a tribe, but he’s not without redemption. Matthew Fox’s usual charm is cleverly subverted as he plays an oily character that is nonetheless coolly competent. Russell’s Hunt is perhaps the most traditional character – the stoic Sherriff with a worried wife at home – but the script and Russell bring so much unspoken history, gravitas and humanity to the role that it avoids stereotypes.

It’s Richard Jenkins that steals the show though, as Chicory’s outwardly foolish and verbose ramblings hide his true competency and decency. He’s the heart of the film, often commenting on their predicament in elliptical ways, serving as a Greek chorus of sorts while being charming and hilarious. Without him the movie wouldn’t be nearly as effective, and if there’s any justice Jenkin’s performance will be remembered come awards time.

The movie’s not without its missteps, as an overly long middle section threatens to throw off pacing even as it builds its characters. Sean Young also shows up for a scene and feels incredibly out of place, unable to wrestle with the period dialogue. But it builds to a showdown that’s worth the wait, as the desperate posse descends (or ascends, as it’s in a mountainside cave) upon the Troglodyte’s home, hopelessly outmatched with little chance of surviving, let alone rescuing their comrades.

The Troglodytes are suitably terrifying, covered in a white powder with portruding bones and an otherworldly battle cry. We get to see a bit of their strange society once inside their cave, and it’s chillingly alien – devoid of compassion or recognizable human behaviour. The ending also indulges in some extreme gore, rivalling Eli Roth’s recent Green Inferno for most brutal kill by a cannibal in a movie.

While the Tarantino influences can’t be denied (and are most apparent in the languid and flowery prose and abrupt violence), Bone Tomahawk also feels akin to the stellar videogame Red Dead Redemption. Both are stylish and funny Westerns that reckon with America’s bloody past and history of racial violence, using humour to temper their ultimately dark themes.

And make no mistake – this is a grim, dirty Western mashed up with elements of dark horror. It’s the type of movie that shows how easily lives could be lost in the Old West and the type of hardened men and women that could survive. It’s uncompromising and boldly idiosyncratic, marking a welcome return to the genre for Kurt Russell and a promising debut for S. Craig Zahler.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Runtime: 132 minutes

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