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Bone Tomahawk | Review

Down to the Bone: Zahler’s Debut a Dapper Genre Hybrid

Bone Tomahawk PosterFor his directorial debut, screenwriter S. Craig Zahler assembles an illustrious cast in Bone Tomahawk, an old-school Western eventually shading by successful moments of horror. Though this feels like somewhat of an ingenious, if perverted version of something like The Searchers (1956), and is not the only recent blending of western horror (J.T. Petty’s 2008 film The Burrowers terrorizes its settlers with subterranean creatures), Zahler’s painstaking characterizations elevate the material beyond the usual potential of swarthy genre films handled as B-grade fare.

Although sporting an uncustomary running time considering the limited narrative (eclipsing two hours), which sometimes seems unnecessary, Zahler’s film is never arduous and sports a completely fine-tuned package of superb visuals and increasingly ominous score.

In the small town of Bright Hope, Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) is the amiable voice of the law, assisted by his ‘back-up deputy’ Chicory (Richard Jenkins). Cowboy Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and his pretty wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) have recently come to reside there, but are thwarted by Arthur breaking his leg in an accident at home. As he heals, Samantha is called to the local jail to spend the night caring for a wounded criminal, Purvis (David Arquette), who was recently arrested at the local saloon. But it seems Purvis and his deceased cohort desecrated the burial ground of a primitive clan of vicious humans who descend upon Bright Hope and kidnap several denizens, including Arthur’s wife. Now, the Sheriff, along with the wounded Arthur, must gather together a rescue mission, dispatching merciless Indian killer Brooder (Matthew Fox), a man who was once competition for the affections of Samantha.

Initially, certain elements of Bone Tomahawk’s screenplay seem a bit cheesy during its initial set-up, with dialogue too painstaking in its attempts to reflect the period, delivered clumsily by certain cast members. Luckily, this awkwardness more or less dissolves once the dramatic catalyst transpires. Likewise, Zahler’s film conforms to certain superficial standards of classic American Westerns with its overabundance of handsome people miraculously retaining their beauty in the midst of harsh conditions, particularly in the film’s depiction of women.

Lili Simmons is the most noticeable eyesore, a woman who looks like a model in period garb though we’re supposed to believe she’s a medical professional. Patrick Wilson is also a bit suspect here, though his Apple Pie smile is lost in contortions of pain as he deals with a broken limb on this arduous journey. Fans of Kurt Russell should be pleased to find the well-preserved performer in top form as the honorable Sheriff, but he’s usurped by his side-kick, a near unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, channeling a host of vintage supporting character actors (think Walter Brennan upstaging Gary Cooper). Matthew Fox continues his trend in supreme villainy as a hunter of Indians, whose abject racism (recalling the cold-blooded viciousness of Aldo Sambrell in Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe) is used as a counterpoint for the narrative to explain these ‘troglodytes’ are not your standard Native Americans, and therefore avoids a bit of the redolent racism and exploitation often threaded throughout the genre. A host of other recognizable faces pop up as well, like David Arquette, Sid Haig, Sean Young, Fred Melamed, and Michael Pare.

Most of Bone Tomahawk takes place in the middle of the desert, focused on the doomed rescue mission, where in-house bickering is only interrupted by the ominous sounds of the inhuman bellows made by the mysterious tribe they’re tracking. Benji Bakshi’s cinematography and impressive film score from Zahler and Jeff Herriott (their first credit as composers) provide efficient technical achievements, culminating in a memorably gruesome final act.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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