Bone Tomahawk (2015)

I recently had the good fortune of seeing Quentin Tarantino’s latest flick, the very cool and slightly long ‘The Hateful Eight’, starring veteran bad-ass Kurt Russell (‘The Thing’). In that one, Russell plays a rough bounty hunter in the Old West days following the American Civil War. Just prior to jumping into bed with QT for that flick, Russell had donned a cowboy hat for this modestly budgeted Western / Horror hybrid, which was quietly released last year. Surprising even to me, I must admit that I do enjoy a good Western, when I come across one, and when I got wind of this mash-up of genres and the understated good will it was receiving critically, I decided that I had to add it to a ‘Must See’ list of some kind. So, now that I’ve seen it, was my patient anticipation worth it. To answer honestly…yes. Very much so.
‘Bone Tomahawk’ opens in the scrub-choked and sun-baked hills outside a small, sleepy town named ‘Bright Hope’. A stranger (David Arquette) wanders into town, after having been observed exhibiting some suspicious behaviour on the outskirts by the elderly back-up deputy, ‘Chicory’ (Richard Jenkins). This brings the appropriately-named town sheriff ‘Hunt’ (Kurt Russell) into the fold and, after a tense confrontation and a bullet in a leg, the stranger is locked up and medical attention is hastily sought. The town doctor, ‘Mrs. Samantha O’Dwyer’ (Lili Simmons), is brought to the jail and opts to spend the night observing her patient’s status. It’s during the night that a group of violent and mysterious savages pass through the town, abducting ‘Samantha’ and the town deputy ‘Nick’ (Evan Jonigkeit). Once this is discovered, ‘Hunt’ and ‘Chicory’ team up with ‘Samantha’s hobbled husband ‘Arthur’ (Patrick Wilson) and a ‘dandy’ of a gunslinger named ‘Brooder’ (Matthew Fox) to track down the beasts-as-men and hopefully rescue the two kidnap victims before any harm can befall them.
Anyone coming into this movie expecting a lightning-paced shoot-em-up along the lines of ‘Young Guns’ (1987) or ‘Tombstone’ (1993) needs to check that expectation at the door. ‘Bone Tomahawk’, while certainly containing its share of gun-play and bloodshed, is far more ‘patient’ and contemplative then one might expect. Huge portions of the narrative are dedicated to observing the four main players, one of which is virtually crippled, as they trek long across the inhospitable land; hell-bent on rescue and revenge. The antagonists, despite being glimpsed in the 1st Act, really only become a factor in the 3rd. The bulk of Act 2 is simply the men, all of which are infused with differing perspectives and personalities, as they work together toward their very worthy goal. It was admirable how the film took it’s time getting to know the characters, which in turn endeared me to them for varying reasons and had me rooting for them to accomplish their mission and bring frontier justice to the monstrous creatures that afflicted them and their town.
A significant contribution to this concept working is the VERY choice cast at work here. Obviously when you get Kurt Russell on screen, sweet shit is going to happen. It was highly cool to see him tackle the forceful and boisterous bounty hunter ‘Ruth’ in ‘The Hateful Eight’, and then have him tackle a similar character in a similar ‘period’, and give him a completely different personality; yet again confirming the man’s range. Right from the get-go, we see that ‘Hunt’ is a firm but fair sheriff who takes his job seriously and is smart enough to defer to the resources around him, like Matthew Fox’s ‘Brooder’ character; an Indian-slaughtering example of quiet and purposeful revenge. These two played off each other nicely, and I felt a grudging respect form over the course of the 132 minute run-time between the opposing personalities. Patrick Wilson (‘Watchmen) is an actor I don’t actively consider when discussing performers of today, but I enjoy his performance in every flick I see of his. Here, he played the driving force of the expedition, his determination to save his wife undermined by a compound fracture he unwisely sustained before the abduction. On top of having to clearly convey his anger and worry, he had to do so while ‘selling’ the character being hurt the ENTIRE time. Wilson did a lot of crawling in the dirt for this one. Richard Jenkins (‘The Cabin in the Woods’), in his own way, NEARLY out-shined everyone with his portrayal of the simple, but loyal back-up deputy who shows he has more ‘guts’ than one would expect. These four thespians are also supported by cameos from David Arquette (‘Scream’), Sid Haig (‘House of 1000 Corpses’), Sean Young (‘Blade Runner’) and James Tolkan (‘Top Gun’). So this movie certainly doesn’t lose any points from the casting.
Another aspect that stood out to me was the tone of the musical score. More than once, I couldn’t help but to be reminded of some kind of ‘pretentious Canadian art-house’ sensiblity, for reasons I can’t readily explain. There was just ‘something’ about the long, still shots of characters and landscape accompanied by the bleak and wavering sounds of a violin that lent to this impression. Now this may sound like a criticism, but rest assured…it’s not. I felt that as ‘The Final Piece of Dialogue’, the score fit the ambiance to a ‘T’. Well done.
When it comes to the Horror aspects, this flick has some nasty shit scattered through out the story…especially when the 4 men reach their goal and come face-to-face with the ‘savages’; a clan of vicious, inbred psycho’s who even the local Indians hate and fear. A couple times, the ‘flavour’ threatened to dip a little too closely to the gory and shameful excess of the Italian cannibal films of the late 70’s / early 80’s. Luckily, the ample run-time wasn’t infested with scenes of such violent depravity, and the ones that did pop up…did so in a way that instantly caught my attention. There’s one sequence where the cannibalistic menace shows how they do things, where their victims are concerned, and not only are the make-up effects nauseatingly effective but the whole idea of it is unsettling and hard-to-watch. It REALLY makes you root for our heroes.
If I really had to dig up a worthwhile critique, I would have to say that I could’ve gone with a bit more lively of a colour scheme. This is just a personal thing, as I fully understand, given the established tone, why a drab visual plan would be attractive for THIS story…especially as a reinforcement for the desperation and hardship the characters have to go through to get the job done. Again, this isn’t much of a complaint, just something that would’ve made the experience of watching this movie a wee bit better…for me.
All in all, ‘Bone Tomahawk’ was pretty much what I hoped for and expected it to be. It’s a shame that it wasn’t granted a wide release, as there is definitely solid effort and ‘quality’ on-screen. It has a ‘slow burn’ pace that gives us time to meet and understand the main characters and the desperate stakes they find themselves up against, all filmed and edited in a patient and disciplined manner that lets us absorb the characters , the landscape, and the ‘tone’ as the increasingly desperate narrative creeps toward the final reel. If I had to compare it to any other director’s work, John Hillcoat (‘The Proposition’, ‘The Road’, ‘Lawless’ etc) is the name that instantly comes to mind. If you know these films, then you’ll understand what I mean. If you’re a fan of Westerns and Horror flicks, this one should definitely work for you, as it blends the two genres together so seamlessly that either moniker could be used to describe this one…and they’d both be accurate. Search this one out…it deserves your attention.

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