Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

The arrival of a stranger in tiny Western town of Bright Hope sets off a chain of deadly events for Sheriff Franklin Hunt. After confronting his suspicious actions, the stranger tries to flee and Hunt shoots him in the leg. Overnight, the town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer is brought to the jail to tend to his wounds but when Hunt returns in the morning they, along with a deputy, have disappeared. When a local Indian identifies the attackers as a tribe of Indians he calls Troglodytes, Hunt sets up a posse to go and rescue them. Joined by aging deputy Chicory, Samantha’s husband Arthur who is desperate to go despite having a broken leg, and former soldier John Brooder, Hunt sets off in pursuit, totally unprepared for the fate that awaits them in the territory of the Troglodytes – the Valley of the Starving Man.

 

Bone Tomahawk can easily be summed up as cowboys versus cannibals. In today’s mix-and-match genre pairings, where all manner of genres are being juxtaposed together to freshen up a stagnant market (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies immediately springs to mind), it wasn’t going to be long before the western was back in the sights of filmmakers given that Quentin Tarantino was ready to burst back into the genre with The Hateful Eight in 2015. There have been sporadic attempts to mix westerns and horror over the past few years but none have been particularly successful. I can think of a couple like Jonah Hex or low budget ones like Undead or Alive but generally the genre made famous by John Wayne hasn’t been a source of inspiration for budding horror filmmakers to make a crossover film. It’s a pity because Bone Tomahawk works very well as a western before the horror elements kick in during the second half.

If you only say one thing about Bone Tomahawk, you have to say that it’s gritty. The western influence rides head and shoulders above the horror and for the better. This is a harsh world, alien to us living in the 20th and 21st centuries, and one with certain codes and conducts which seem brutal and cruel to us and where logic and reason don’t exactly go hand-in-hand with compassion and love. There’s no over-dramatisation of anything. There’s little Hollywood-esque glamour and glitz. This is an unforgiving world where it’s survival of the fittest. Be warned through: this gritty approach is rather leisurely and many horror fans will most likely tune out before Bone Tomahawk ever gets close to its gory surprises. At around two hours in length, almost unheard of for something like this, the film doesn’t exactly burst forth with energy. The narrative sets up the eventful rescue mission by introducing the characters and spending time with them as they trek across the countryside. Very dialogue-heavy, the bond between the posse is constructed with the end game in mind – not all of these characters are going to survive the eventual encounter with the Troglodytes – so that we care about them as fully-developed characters, rather than just one-dimensional cannon fodder to be served up on a platter.

Director and writer S. Craig Zahler has assembled a great cast for such a little-known film. The leading light is obviously Kurt Russell, who effortlessly slips into the moustached-wearing lawman role he had in Tombstone back in 1993. Russell has such power and gravitas in this type of role and delivers a great, no-nonsense performance, far better than he has done for a long time. The supporting players are all equally as good. Richard Jenkins is excellent as the elderly, dim-witted deputy and the rapport he shares throughout the film with Russell is one of its highlights. Patrick Wilson tackles the role of the crippled husband with vigour and really gets across his character’s desire to rescue his wife. Rounding off the four main actors is Matthew Fox who hasn’t been this entertaining in, well, ever really. His ex-soldier without a moral code and a hatred of Indians is definitely one of the standouts of the film. The chemistry between the four men is fantastic and you really get emotionally involved in each of them. There are also small roles for the likes of David Arquette, Sid Haig and Michael Paré to name a few. How Zahler managed to get this cast together is beyond me but it works wonders for the authenticity of the film.

Sadly, a lot of Bone Tomahawk’s great build-up work and sense of overwhelming dread, particularly when the group enters the Valley of the Starving Man, is undone somewhat when they actually encounter the Troglodytes. Almost everything that happens from this point, save for some great gore moments, is rather matter-of-fact. The film resolves itself rather quickly, and without a lot of major fuss, which kind of detracts from the hard work that had gone in before it. I was expecting something that packed a little more punch and delivered a few more thrills than it did. The eventual show-off with the cannibals is disappointingly brief.

Speaking of the gore, Bone Tomahawk features some disgusting moments. An opening throat-slit and early arrow-to-the-head moment hint at the brutality to come but it doesn’t really prepare you two of the images later in the film. The best thing is that the effects have all been done with prosthetics and so there’s not a hint of CGI in sight.  Don’t expect an all-out gore-fest though as the violence is sporadic but really hits home when it happens. You really get the feeling that these men are fighting for their very lives.

 

Bone Tomahawk features a simple tried-and-tested Western scenario which is then pushed into the extreme by nature of the horror threat the characters face. It works far better than it has any right to work but when you get a director/writer who clearly knows what he’s doing, a fantastic cast who really make their characters shine and some horrific moments which would rival the meanest scenes from the likes of The Hills Have Eyes, then what do you expect? Check it out if you get the opportunity.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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