Bone Tomahawk

US | 2015 | Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Logline: In the Wild West four men set out to rescue a group that has been abducted by a tribe of primitive cave dwellers.

Novelist and aspiring screenwriter Zahler’s dream comes true, Hollywood comes a-knocking, with Kurt Russell attached. His dark Western journey into the heart of darkness is brought to life with bone-dry black comedy and gut-wrenching ultraviolence. Bone Tomahawk is one of the best revisionist Westerns of the past twenty years, and, along with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, gives Russell the second best role – and performance - he’s had/given in years. 

Set in 1890s, at the tail end of the Wild West, in Southern California, the story opens with a prologue that depicts the plight of two drifting vultures, Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette) on the outskirts of the township Bright Hope. Eleven days later Purvis shows up at the local bar, somewhat worse for wear. Back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) has observed suspicious behaviour, and he notifies the Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell).

The lovely Samantha Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is called away from attending to her husband Arthur’s (Patrick Wilson) injured leg, to extract a bullet from a culprit’s leg. Meanwhile, young Gizzard (Maestro Harrell) hears a strange call on the night breeze. He inspects the stables.

Subsequently an arduous journey is embarked upon by Hunt, Chicory, a loyal sharp-shooter known as Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Arthur, as they set off on a five day jaunt across the Mojave desert to find the Valley of the Starving Man, where a tribe of brutal, in-bred cannibals dwell. The four townsmen must execute a daring rescue. The odds are against them.

Clocking in at two hours-ten minutes, the bulk of the movie is the incidents at Bright Hope and the trek itself. In the movie’s third act horror rears its monstrous head and cuts a bloody path of destruction, a standout set-piece being a savage vivisection of a man. In fact there are numerous special effects makeup moments, I was surprised the artists involved weren’t given proper credit, instead just being mentioned amidst the usual crawl at film’s end.

All performances are top notch; Russell, of course, delivers a wonderfully measured, restrained presence, a noble lawman indeed. Wilson is always good, but special mention to Jenkins, in the role of the old timer, and Fox (almost unrecognisable) as the suave, well-heeled Injun killer.

The cannibals are, apparently, troglodytes. Lathered in white okra, adorned with tusks, and brandishing bone tomahawks, and bow and arrow. The also have human teeth embedded in their throats, enabling them to make a harrowing scream/call-to-arms. The women of their clan have been blinded and left as baby machines.

There is a brooding minimalism and historical authenticity that exudes from Bone Tomahawk’s sweaty skin; the mannerisms, the dialogue (which reminds one of Tarantino-esque exchanges, but not as self-conscious or as clashingly modern), and a shroud of nihilism that hangs over like a dark desert cloud.

I’ll be bold enough to say, this is the Western Tarantino would love to make, but would never pull off. So put your timepiece away, it’s time to ride, it’s time to kill, it’s time to bleed.