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Review: Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Directed by: S. Craig Zahler

Premise: Set in the 1890s, a cannibalistic tribe of Native Americans kidnap three people from a frontier town. The local sheriff (Kurt Russell) leads a search party into unknown lands.

What Works: Bone Tomahawk is an interesting combination of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes. It is first and foremost a western and it utilizes the characters and tropes of classic movies. This is a reworking of the captivity narrative in which settlers, and particularly a white woman, are seized by natives and must then be rescued by the sheriff and his posse. But Bone Tomahawk also includes elements of the horror film; the movie has a pervasive atmosphere of dread and it is quite gruesome in places, especially the ending. The western and horror elements are complementary. The western provides a familiar storytelling boilerplate that the horror elements are able to enhance. This is not your grandfather’s western and Bone Tomahawk is a tough movie in which the west is an unforgiving and savage place. Among the outstanding qualities of Bone Tomahawk is its characters. This distinguishes the movie from either the western or the horror genres which tend to rely on cliché, one-dimensional characters. The film is led by a sheriff and his deputy, played by Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, respectively. Russell has played roles like this before and he does well here but the script gives him a little more depth than a typical western lawman. As in a lot of westerns, the deputy is a bumbling rube but Jenkins brings a lot of humanity to the part. The search party is rounded out with Patrick Wilson playing an architect whose wife was taken by the natives and Matthew Fox as a wealthy intellectual who has a history with the architect’s wife. To complicate matters, Wilson’s character has a broken leg and the arduous travel across the western frontier threatens to make his injury worse. The relationships between these four men are complex and interesting and in their journey the men reveal aspects of themselves that go beyond what we generally expect from the characterization in a western or a horror film. Bone Tomahawk also has a palatable sense of grit. The visuals capture the aridness of the landscape and the sets and costumes look of their period. Injuries like Wilson’s broken leg have a visceral impact as does much of the other violence. Especially well designed are the outfits and dwellings of the fictional savage tribe which have a great impression of reality and sell the more outlandish aspects of the movie.

What Doesn’t: Bone Tomahawk is very effective at mixing genres. However, the very thing that distinguishes this picture may cause it to dissatisfy some viewers. The western audience overlaps with the action-adventure audience and these genres tend to reaffirm traditional masculine ideas. Like action movies, the violence of most westerns is painless and enjoyable for the audience (it doesn’t use a lot of gore) and it is usually presented in a morally unequivocal way. The violence of Bone Tomahawk is unpleasant and the film doesn’t necessarily endorse a masculine ideal. As a result, the John Wayne audience is likely to be put off by this movie as will those who come to it looking for lighter action fare. At the same time the horror audience may not find Bone Tomahawk horrifying enough. The gore is concentrated in the ending and the middle of the movie is more like a familiar western. This is a long movie—a little too long, in fact—and the portion of the horror audience that’s looking for mayhem is probably going to find this too ponderous. The way in which the filmmakers of Bone Tomahawk have combined the western and the horror genres is actually to the movie’s credit but the film may be an unpleasant surprise for some viewers.

DVD extras: Featurette, deleted scene, interviews, image gallery, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Bone Tomahawk is an impressive debut feature from first-time director S. Craig Zahler. The movie is tough in places and may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s undeniably well-made and it is a unique film both as a western and as a horror picture.

Episode: #591 (April 17, 2016)