Film Review: Bone Tomahawk

Director: S. Craig Zahler

18  |  132 min  |  Adventure, Drama, Horror  |  19 February 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

Bone Tomahawk. Even the name sounds brutal to speak, and read. Brutality is exactly what director S. Craig Zahler’s film, which he also wrote, delivers for sure. It is, however, also brutally effective in what it does overall, which is fuse western and horror tropes to create a slow-burning, visceral experience that, although not flawless, should ensure fans of both genres leave theatres satisfied.

The setting is that of a classic isolated frontier town, Bright Hope, sometime in the mid 1800s. Late one night, convalescing local businessman Arthur O’Dwyer’s (Patrick Wilson) life is turned upside down when his wife, the town’s backup doctor, is kidnapped whilst treating a patient in the jail. Clued in by an Indian town resident that a strange, lost tribe of troglodytes might be responsible given the strange, bone-decorated arrows and axes left behind, the grizzled and stoic Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) rounds up a disparate vigilante posse to pursue, including himself, his eccentric Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), local gunslinger and charmer Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the crippled O’Dwyer. They set off quickly to pick up the trail, facing a hard five-day ride, but their rescue soon turns into a nightmare that is one part The Searchers and a little bit The Hills Have Eyes. In case the gritty title didn’t clue you in, things do eventually get very bloody, and many a bone is broken.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this genre hybrid is how much care is paid towards the western aspects, and to building up the suspense. It would’ve been easy to speed the film towards a bloody massacre, but Zahler instead takes his time sketching out the township and the characters and letting the tension build, with the production design and use of locations effective enough at creating a suitably dusty ‘frontier wilderness’ feel. Clothes and interiors look lived in, the characters have dirt under their fingernails, and the iconography of the whole period feel present and correct.

Despite a lengthy run time, with much of it encompassing the vigilante group’s increasingly hairy trek through the wilderness, flavoursome, snappy dialogue and smart casting (Kurt Russell was simply born to play bygone era sheriffs and bounty hunters) results in this actually being by far the strongest section of the film. Even the supporting characters played by Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox have moments where they really shine, with both getting a surprising number of good gags. So generally rich are the character dynamics in fact, that the bone-crunching showdown with the cannibals (who the filmmakers are at pains to point out, somewhat awkwardly through the script, are not American Indians but weird proto-humans whom even the native peoples think it is totally cool to kill) actually suffers in comparison, though it somehow feels like a credit to the director to point this out. After all, throwing blood and guts at the screen is easy, good character writing is hard.

Film Review: Bone Tomahawk
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