Bone Tomahawk proves that the western just keeps on chuggin’ along, despite long stretches where critics wrote off the genre as dead and buried. Sometimes it takes a film that blends the western with some other interesting, less-than-obvious sub-genres to keep it alive (The Good, The Bad, The Weird), the stubbornness and skill of an auteur (Django Unchained) or is quite simply a western that’s also a fucking great movie (Unforgiven, Open Range). Bone Tomahawk happens to be one of those fucking great movies, which splices in elements of horror with fascinating results.
|Director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Country: USA, UK
If you were planning on seeing Bone Tomahawk, or maybe just had a passing curiosity about the film, then stop reading this and go watch it. It’s one of those films where the less you know the better. If you kinda-sorta know what to expect, it robs Bone Tomahawk of a fair amount of its impact. However it doesn’t suffer too much from spoilers, in that it’s a tremendously entertaining watch regardless.
Seriously, stop reading this, bugger off and go watch the film, then come back.
Still here? Okay, here’s the deal: if you like westerns with some damn fine Kurt Russell mustache action, a bit of gore, Richard Jenkins (whose mere presence automatically enhances a film by at least 18.3%, fact) and awesome on-the-road camaraderie, then you’ll love this film.
It’s 1891, and two scummy murderers named Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (Sid Haig who, as per the Jenkins factor, enhances a film by simply showing up) steal a trinket off one of their kills. This McGuffin is buried by Arquette near the town of Bright Hope, population 268. And it’s this McGuffin thingy that’s wanted by a tribe who are initially mistaken by the townsfolk for Native Americans. However they turn out to be something far deadlier. This tribe attacks the town and kidnaps a few people, including the wife of Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson). O’Dwyer, who is nursing a broken leg, insists that his wife be found, but also insists on joining the hunting party despite his handicap, much to the annoyance of town sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell). Joining them is decrepit deputy sheriff Chicory (Jenkins), who is still mourning the loss of his wife, and the mysterious and dapper John Brooder (Matthew Fox). This unlikely quartet set out to find the tribe and rescue the captives, underestimating the danger that awaits them at the other end.
It’s the interactions between these four as well as the performances by Russell, Jenkins, Wilson and Fox that comprise much of the first half of Bone Tomahawk. And instead of being a bunch of scenes that we have to slog through to get to the meat and gristle of the film, these scenes of the characters interacting (you know, doing that male bonding bullshit, testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, slowly revealing their backstories) are some of the best parts of the film. There’s always a sense of dread hanging over these scenes, even before we get to the really tense bits of Bone Tomahawk, but seeing these four act off each other and react to the different challenges they stumble across on their journey is an absolute delight.
Russell is as reliable a lead as ever, and Wilson proves that his character is more than just the catalyst for getting this hunting party started. Matthew Fox shows the depth beneath a role that would otherwise be easily dismissed as the cool, calculating professional of the group. His hunter is sophisticated, intelligent, arrogant and cunning. This seemingly morals-free and snappily-dressed hunter is the most enigmatic and fascinating character of the four, but that’s not to say the others are one-dimensional characters created simply to advance the plot.
Richard Jenkins, as is often the case, is the standout. He plays a character who seems, at first, to be way out of his depth, a man better suited to staying back in Bright Hope mourning his wife until the grim spectre of death pays him a visit. But it’s Jenkins’ character Chicory who proves to be the moral centre of Bone Tomahawk, seemingly at odds with the character’s habit of talking annoyingly and incessantly to fill the silence.
Interestingly, Bone Tomahawk has more in common with another recent western - Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight - than simply their moustachioed star Kurt Russell and the trappings of the genre. Both westerns take their sweet time in getting to the “good stuff” - if you don’t count great acting, strong dialogue and fascinating character interplay as good stuff, that is - as they are both leisurely paced, yet never dull. They are both carefully and lovingly filmed, eschewing fast and unnecessary edits unless a scene calls for it. And they are both extremely brutal films, almost nihilistic and unforgiving in their nature, in no way romanticising or mythologising the Wild West. Both Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight would make a great double-bill if they weren’t so gruelling to sit through. One of the major differences between the two films, however, is that you actually root for the main characters in Bone Tomahawk, whereas there are no such people to empathise with in Tarantino’s bleak but gorgeously-staged film.
Another thing Bone Tomahawk has in common with The Hateful Eight is an Australian R classification, and you’d be wise to take note of that rating. Whilst it doesn’t wallow in gratuitous gore and violence like it could have, the brutality of Bone Tomahawk is on full show, with one particular scene presenting what has to be the most disturbing kill you’re likely to see in a theatrical film. The violence often occurs suddenly, with little or no warning, and is presented in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler doesn’t pause to savour the gory wounds with the sort of bloodthirsty zeal you might find in a Lucio Fulci film. And music is scarcely used; when it does, it’s sparing and mournful. Sound effects, such as distant howls and cries, are amplified to chilling effect.
Cons? It’s quite weird for a western, if you’re a stickler for run-of-the-mill good guys vs bad guys shenanigans (a bloaty Sean Young appears briefly, and thanklessly, as the mayor’s wife, in an odd and distracting cameo). There’s some shaky-cam action at the start, but thankfully this annoying tendency settles down once the lads set off on their journey. Zahler opts to use wide shots for much of the film’s length, rarely resorting to quick cuts or close-ups to amplify the action. For the most part this works, but occasionally you really feel that the deliberate wide staging of the shots could have been mixed up with some mid- to close-range shots for that extra punch.
However complaints are minimal, for Bone Tomahawk is a beautiful and nasty piece of work, unflinching when it needs to be and also confident enough to let things play out at their own pace. This means we become more invested in the characters, which ratchets up the tension when it’s called for. It’s wonderfully engaging thanks to the four terrific leads and a smart script.