Bone Tomahawk Director: S. Craig Zahler
Screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig, Sean Young Caliber Media Company | RLJ Entertainment
Not Rated | 133 Minutes
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk is a measured, macabre mash-up that’s equal parts The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes.
When a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers kidnaps settlers from the town of Bright Hope, a team of gunslingers, led by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), sets out to bring them home. Accompanying the sheriff are “backup deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), haughty Indian-hunter Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), whose wife (Lili Simmons) was abducted in the raid.
The primitives aren’t Indians though, they’re “something else entirely,” a spoiled bloodline known only as “troglodytes.” Covered in white powder and transformed by animal tusks and other body modifications, the cannibals resemble worshipers of John McTiernan’s Predator. These troglodytes have no spoken language; they communicate only via a ghastly howl, the kind created by grafting a wolf’s larynx to their voice box.
Before Sheriff Hunt and his gunslingers witness first-hand the troglodytes’ savagery, they must endure the unforgiving terrain and harsh realities of the Old West. Broken legs, horse thieves; there’s nothing convenient about life in the American frontier.
While Hunt and his men are filled with urgency to reclaim their friends and loved ones, they are powerless to the times in which they live. It’s a long, hard journey that few will return from. And they know that – they have to – because even men of true grit cannot withstand such barbarism.
Bone Tomahawk is more contemplative than you might imagine. Those expecting a schlocky send-up of Spaghetti Westerns and cannibal flicks will discover that Zahler’s horror-western is less concerned with exploitation and more focused on its world-weary heroes and their hardships.
Once Hunt and his men reach the troglodytes’ cave, however, all hell breaks loose. The gunslingers have entered the bowels of Hell, and like the Cenobites from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, the troglodytes have such sights to show them. Men are scalped and strung up like animals, field dressed, and gutted in grisly detail. Even for someone as desensitized to gore as me, these scenes were truly shocking.
By keeping a slow and deliberate pace, Zahler builds a relationship between his characters and the audience. We are worried for Hunt, Chicory, and the O’Dwyers. We wonder if Brooder may find some small sliver of redemption in being an honorable man after spending years of slaughtering Indians. We wonder if the civilized are really any different than the primitives, and we breathe a deep sigh of relief in knowing we live in a world of convenience, where we needn’t worry about hunting for food or dying from cholera.
Bone Tomahawk is a slow burn, uninterested in pacifying those with short attention spans. As a result, it will not be for everyone. Many will consider the film too slow, and at 133 minutes that argument can certainly be made.
Luckily, there are some great performances from Russell, Jenkins, and the rest of Zahler’s ensemble to keep you involved. They’re playing classic Western characters: the high-minded sheriff, the lovable old coot, the vain marksman, the cowboy, but each actor brings something to the part that elevates the archetype to a character worthy of investing in.
For me, the film’s jaw-dropping third act is worth saddling up for. Maybe by shaving 13 minutes from the film Zahler could keep more people engaged, but would the story be as brutal then? Would the audience be sufficiently bludgeoned by the characters’ burdens to care? It’s an interesting question.
Bone Tomahawk made its world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest. A couple nights later, I was lucky enough to see the film as part of the Charlotte Film Festival’s closing night festivities. While it isn’t for everyone, I highly recommending checking out Zahler’s gritty horror-western hybrid on October 23rd, when it’s released in select theaters and on video-on-demand (VOD) services.