Bone Tomahawk | S. Craig Zahler | USA | 2015 | 132 minutes
Guest critic Chris Lay prepares you for the Brothers Grim level twistedness of Bone Tomahawk, a western that alternates between strong character work and even stronger grisly violence.
If you had asked me upon walking out at the end of the roadshow screening of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight if I had just witnessed the goriest western to be released in 2015 starring Kurt Russell and an otherwise small but sterling cast, I would have counted up all those caveats and given you a quick and resounding answer in the affirmative. I also would have been dead wrong, because I hadn’t seen Bone Tomahawk yet.
I had been hearing drips and drabs of pretty favorable buzz about first-time director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk for a little while now, but whether thanks to my own stubborn avoidance of spoilery trailers or more likely just a generally lackluster marketing attempt on the part of the producers, I didn’t even know Kurt Russell was in this until I saw his sternly bearded visage adorning the DVD I picked up last week at Four Star, much less anything close to a tip off as to what the ending would be.
All I had was the vague notion of a “western” and “something something creepy Indians.” Both of those expectations were met in kind.
A group of four frontiersmen set off from their cozy town to rescue the town doctor turned damsel in distress Samantha (Lili Simmons) from the clutches of a tribe of savagely cannibalistic and violently territorial cave-dwelling Native Americans.
Sheriff Hunt Patrick (Kurt Russell) and his hopelessly devoted Barney Fife of a deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the damsel’s already damaged husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) whose mending broken leg should’ve sidelined him from the beginning, and dashing know it all Brooder (Matthew Fox), trek for days to get to the Indians’ underground dwelling and hopefully make good on their patriarchal promise to return their lady home in one piece.
While I was watching it I had Jaws in my head as a plot-comparison (bros bro-ing out while hunting something wild and unknown) but with a little time and perspective there’s a much more pronounced fairy tale nature to the proceedings, right down to the primitively fantastical (and one would hope totally fictional) man-eating natives from whom our metaphorical civility must be rescued.
While the film is bookended with some of the most in your face scenes of violence I saw all year (the blood that’s spilled seems to bubble out almost jet black), the long and loping middle third is pretty much just these four characters out on the trail bouncing off each other while doing the grim business at hand. Thankfully the foursome is such a talented group of actors who have all fleshed out their characters with subtle yet appropriate amounts of heft, or else the long and ominous march would have been agonizing.
Speaking of agonizing, I won’t get into any of the grisly details of how things end up for the fearless frontier foursome or their native prey, other than to say that you should be prepared for some Brothers Grimm level twistedness.
All in all, Bone Tomahawk is a scrappy little slow-burn of a western that occasionally explodes into violence, but all the points between are shored up by some great character work by a well cast ensemble. While I’m sure it would’ve been ideal to see it on the big screen, the relatively claustrophobic nature of the camera’s focus on the group of men translates well to the whatever small screen you decide to catch this on.