While we wait with varying levels of impatience for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, another western starring Kurt Russell has crept its way onto UK shores with little fanfare. Writer / director S Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is a rich find in the present cinematic landscape, though you may be hard pressed to locate it. That’s a shame. Because it also happens to be one of the better films of 2015’s back-end.
Following a scrappy tone-setting intro in which road agents Sid Haig and David Arquette fall foul, it appears, of a clan of brutal Native Americans, the film shifts eleven days and several miles to the township of Bright Hope. Zahler introduces us to the key players for what is to follow; Russell leads the pack as straight-talking Sheriff Hunt with Richard Jenkins’ Deputy Chicory appearing, on first glance, like one might imagine Leon from Deadwood had he been given the chance to grow older. But appearances in Bone Tomahawk can be deceiving. Take for example Matthew Fox as Brooder. On initial inspection he might be mistaken for an out-of-place New York dandy. Over the next hour Fox reveals him as a man as savvy as he is unscrupulous.
When Arquette ambles into town as survivor of the opening scuffle claiming his name to be ‘Buddy’, Samantha O’Dowd (Lili Simmons) administers to a gunshot wound acquired at the hand of the sheriff. Yet come morning ‘Buddy’ and Samantha are gone, suspected of having been abducted by the same natives. Her lame husband Arthur (the ever-dependable Patrick Wilson) unwisely joins the search party. Bone Tomahawk follows the expedition into the wastes on a rescue mission.
Zahler’s film sets forth over two hours and a little change at a steady but readily enjoyable pace. Its measured without ever feeling as though it dawdles. Chiefly this is accomplished through Zahler deferring to his actors and the fine script he has prepared for them. Flavoursome dialogue is the order of the day, and the words traded throughout the film are plenty quotable and wryly amusing. Though it wears a heavy brow whenever drama – and eventually horror – are required to hold court, Zahler’s film is a very funny one, and his leads are judiciously cast for maximum effect. These are seasoned character actors. The economy of small moments exemplifies each of them. The force with which Sheriff Hunt rights a chair, for instance, speaks volumes. As does the moment Brooder takes to compose himself before acting early on.
Zahler changes key from conventional western to horror film via a suspenseful sequence over a count of thirty seconds. In itself it isn’t horrific, but it settles the audience’s attention for the events to come, as Hunt, Chicory and Brooder come face to face with the enemy that has eluded them. Zahler’s troglodyte cannibals are as worthy as any entry in horror’s grizzliest subgenre; a clan of dust-caked subhumans with whom reason is impossible. An all-too-brief appearance from Patrick Wilson’s fellow Fargo alumni Zahn McClarnon underlines the film’s stance; these are not meant to represent Native Americans. Bone Tomahawk takes pains to distance itself from any suggestions of racism.
If anything, Bone Tomahawk takes a healthy and violent swipe at the hubris and stupidity of white men assuming sovereignty of land they don’t know or understand. The price for boneheaded assumption is steep and bloody. For what a dark turn this film takes. Make no mistake, once it shifts gears, there is no turning back and what follows is resolutely not for the faint of heart. Bone Tomahawk is a horror picture, potentially the finest rival to It Follows this year. Suddenly the upfront casting of Sid Haig makes sense. Russell and Wilson too, to a lesser extent. Zahler bows to genre totems, though he is never enslaved by them.
He should take solace, then, that while his film won’t have accrued significant box office this festive season, it is exactly the kind of picture likely to be fuelled by word of mouth and, hopefully, a snowballing reputation. Time will tell on that score. But for horror fans this is an absolute must. For those expecting a more conventional western, there’s a high chance of being simply appalled. If you thought Django Unchained was gratuitously brutal, for instance, you’d do well to steer clear. It’s no accident the film’s opening shot is of a man’s throat being slit.
Those with a stomach for the bold, however, step forward. There’s a new sheriff in town.