“Bone Tomahawk” Movie Review


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     Thinking back to 1996 and the experience watching the Quentin Tarantino / Robert Rodriguez crime and horror mashup “From Dusk Till Dawn”, I remember the reaction to watching what had appeared to be a crime story about two notorious bank robbers and their escape route to Mexico, only to have everything completely turned upside down as the proceedings abruptly morphed into an over the top vampire gore fest.  Though “From Dusk Till Dawn” would go on to a sort of cult status, spawning several sequels and a hit series on the El Rey network, the mashup of two genres has had limited success with audiences since.  One notable recent misfire has to be Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & Aliens”, which failed to engross audiences in the primetime of summer 2011 with its Western based story and setting not so carefully mixed with an alien invasion plot.  Directing his first feature film, S. Craig Zahler uses a similar approach as both of these examples, melding together the basic elements of a Western with the shock value of a horror in “Bone Tomahawk”. 

     For Zahler, his film receives instant credibility from the start, as “Bone Tomahawk” features none other than Kurt Russell (“Tombstone”) in the lead role.  The casting of Russell immediately gives the film the look and feel of the Wild West since it appears he can step into the genre and perform the role in his sleep.  His Sheriff Franklin Hunt has all of the attributes you would expect from a grizzled, battle hardened law man of the era.  It’s as if Russell has slowly become somewhat of a modern day John Wayne with his ability to effortlessly carry films like this.  I can only imagine what he will bring to Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” a few months from now, but regardless of what his future performances garner, “Bone Tomahawk” represents fine work by any measure.  It would be something to find out exactly what Russell was thinking when he read the script, since like “From Dusk Till Dawn”, the Western transitions into something else by the third act.  I wonder if Russell knew then he would be drawing on the attributes of another of his famous roles?  That being the role of R.J. MacReady in John Carpenter’s “The Thing”.

     A prologue of sorts immediately sets the tone for the type of experience “Bone Tomahawk” intends to give an audience.  Two thieves have just ambushed a group of unknowing travelers and know there is only one way they will never be caught.  Kill the witnesses.  The two thieves, Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette), debate amongst themselves as to how many veins and arteries are in a human neck, with Buddy arguing you have to cut all 16 of them in order to ensure the person dies.  This dialogue tells us a lot about what kind of film we are getting into and makes a statement as to how Zahler’s script and overall vision of the Wild West will treat the genre.  Save to say, he views those times as mercilessly cutthroat as any time in our history.  And for the first two acts, he chooses to lull the audience into comportment as there is little reason to believe the small town the characters occupy is in any real danger.

     That changes when Buddy wanders into town and is confronted by Hunt in a local saloon.  When a witness claims Buddy was seen burying stolen goods nearby, Hunt decides to take him into custody under that suspicion.  But Buddy decides not to cooperate, forcing Hunt to shoot him in the leg and have him treated in a jail cell.  A dapper individual named John Brooder (Matthew Fox) is sent to summon the town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who is at home in bed with her husband Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson).  Hunt has requested her to remove the bullet from Buddy’s leg, a task that will take her away from her husband who ironically is suffering from a severely broken right leg and is painfully bedridden.  Making matters worse, Buddy seems to be suffering from symptoms that require constant medical attention and Samantha volunteers to stay the night with one of Hunt’s deputies to care for the man.  The next morning, Arthur is awakened to the news that his wife, the deputy, and the prisoner have all been presumably kidnapped.  There also appears to be a half eaten man in a nearby stable which they believe is connected.  This is confirmed when a resident Indian named Tall Trees (Zahn McClarnon) tells the group about a cave dwelling cannibal tribe that may have been responsible.

     What ensues is a second act that plays more or less like you’d expect, as Hunt forms a rescue team that includes himself, Brooder, Arthur O’Dwyer, and Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins).  The group embarks on what is said to be a five day journey on horseback in an attempt to rescue Samantha and the Deputy.  For the first two-thirds of the film, Zahler plays by the rules, but when we arrive to the last thirty minutes or so, all bets are off.  There are sequences that are truly difficult to watch.  Ones that may even make Eli Roth a bit squeamish.  For certain, Zahler has created an evil and faceless enemy that seems nearly impossible to combat, especially considering there is no way our heroes could possibly have been prepared for what they would face.  And while the rest of the cast does a solid job, it’s Russell who holds this film together and sells the story as being more than fiction.  Everything about “Bone Tomahawk” has an undeniable authenticity about it.  The dialogue, the setting, and the way each character handles themselves in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds all lend to the film successfully capturing a gritty realism.  Perhaps this marks the rebirth of the genre mashup after all.  GRADE: B