Please note, this review of Bone Tomahawk was previously published in October 2015 as part of our London Film Festival coverage.
For the love of Annie Oakley, it’s only mid-February and we’ve already had three Westerns already, but please don’t let any fatigue left over from the overrated The Revenant or Tarantino’s mildly disappointing The Hateful Eight put you off seeing Bone Tomahawk (which like The Hateful Eight also happens to star a grizzled and behatted Kurt Russell), because this slow-burner is laced with surprising amounts of humour and punctuated with moments of extreme benchmark-raising gore, making it easily the best of its genre this year (*cough* it’s not even March *cough*).
At the heart of first-time writer/director S Craig Zahler’s tale are the O’Dwyers. Samantha (Lili Simmons) is a nurse, helping her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) recuperate after a nasty leg injury, but their lives are thrown further into disarray when Samantha is abducted by a clan of… hang on, let me get this right… neanderthal Native American cannibals. The crippled Arthur takes it upon himself to make the painful five day trek to rescue his wife. Persuaded to come along for the ride are grizzled but cuddly Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), gunslinger and self-confessed “most intelligent man in the party” Brooder (Matthew Fox) and the endlessly chatty and eminently forgetful Chicory (Richard Jenkins).
At 132 minutes, Bone Tomahawk takes its time to get where it’s going, but it’s a pleasure to be cantering alongside its quartet of characters, all of whom are deeply charming in their own way. You’ve got Kurt Russell, who since The Thing is everyone’s first pick to be stranded with in a time of crisis. Jenkins is wonderful as the bumbling ‘back-up deputy’, Fox is very convincing as the cynical man of the world. But it’s Patrick Wilson who makes the most impact, as he stubbornly limps his way across hostile terrain with nothing but a crutch, a six-shooter and tiny vial of opium to keep him going.
The script is full of delicately observational dialogue, with plenty of bonhomie and wryly delivered one-liners, and this gentle humour will easily lull you into forgetting that Bone Tomahawk is still a horror movie at heart. In the third act there’s the most explicit act of violence perpetrated on a human body that I’ve ever seen outside of a Human Centipede chapter. Even this desensitised sicko sat with his hand on his mouth trying to hold back a scream.
Bone Tomahawk’s slow pacing, charming performances and funny dialogue really don’t prepare you for this. Things that hurt in real life are recreated explicitly here; the sound of a bone cracking, the sight of an arrow entering flesh, the feel of an axe in the face. These are brutal acts and Zahler doesn’t shy away from making the audience suffer through the pain along with his characters.
It’s this unimaginable horror that drives the rescue party. As Samantha O’Dwyer states in one of Bone Tomahawk’s more sardonic moments, “That’s why frontier life is so hard. It’s not the conditions. It’s not the Indians. It’s the idiots,” fearing more for the lack of common sense of her would-be rescuers than the monstrous savages keeping her imprisoned. And it’s true, these men are idiots. Each has made some pretty stupid choices to get where they are right now, but everything they’ve done is because they believe they are doing the right thing in the face of pure evil.
The parallels with historical and contemporary US foreign policy are easy to make, but perhaps this is where Bone Tomahawk is at its weakest. It feels like Zahler hasn’t made this connection himself, choosing to portray the ‘trogladytes’ as an unstoppable, inhuman force who have the same dead-eyed cruelty of the shark from Jaws, rather than drawing parallels with real-life indigenous people who are merely trying to defend their land from invaders.
But then I’m probably asking for a very different movie. Bone Tomahawk is ultimately what it set out to be: a tremendously entertaining piece of filmmaking, endlessly surprising, shocking and triumphant as it kicks the faces off Tarantino and Iñárritu’s Westerns with a spurred boot. 4/5