Review by C.J. Bunce
Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 film release Bone Tomahawk starts as a classic Western about life on the frontier–living at home, visiting the local saloon, working in the local Sheriff’s office. It quickly becomes a genre-bending damsel in distress/ “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” picture and much more. Several other genre elements are woven together to create a solid, serious drama that is equal parts suspense thriller and gritty, meaty Western that rises above most efforts to make a classic Western in the past 45 years, if you forgive it for one scene that dips into gruesome, in-your-face horror. Put Bone Tomahawk up there with Silverado. It’s a far better Western than even the much celebrated Unforgiven.
Bone Tomahawk follows four men as they pursue the mysterious captors of a local frontier doctor–a woman (played by Lili Simmons)–and the criminal she was operating on (played by David Arquette) and the on-hand sheriff’s deputy (played by Evan Jonigkeit). It’s a simple story, yet it couldn’t be more unique in its execution. In possibly Kurt Russell’s finest bit of reserved, serious acting ever on film, he plays Sheriff Hunt. Made of the same mettle as Gary Cooper in High Noon and John Wayne in The Searchers, he is relentless in his pursuit. Patrick Wilson is equally relentless as the husband of the missing doctor. His leg has been wounded from a fall and so he must forge ahead limping along throughout the film as he sleuths out what is really going on. Think of him as a mix of Gary Cooper in Sergeant York and Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Lost’s Matthew Fox is the slick but honorable, impeccably dressed gentleman barfly, who once had a thing for the doctor, and volunteers to help find her. The posse is rounded out by the now crotchety character actor from film and TV, Richard Jenkins. He’s droll and provides a different flavor of humor along the way.
Zahler isn’t afraid to let the movie flow at its own pace, and allow the viewer to soak up the scenery, the Western tropes, the camaraderie of the team as they eat and sleep and take their horses forward through the long desert way. It’s an 1890s Assault on Precinct 13, only like High Plains Drifter the nature of the mystery is hidden from us for so long that the anticipation warrants calling this out as a top-notch suspense thriller. Who stole the townsfolk and are they still alive? And what is that strange music we hear in the wind before bodies start falling? Like The Ghost and the Darkness, you want to run away from what is out there waiting for you–this feels like a ghost story, maybe even every frontier family’s personal nightmare come to life.
Not one scene here is predictable. Zahler really keeps the viewer on his/her toes. With an estimated budget of less than $2 million, Bone Tomahawk isn’t filmed with classic filmmaking tools like Quentin Tarantino had with his $62 million budget for The Hateful 8. It’s a good, unique story, and had Zahler had the funds at Tarantino’s disposal I have no doubt this would have had the look of a John Ford picture with a pinch of Howard Hawks. But Zahler takes every limitation of filmmaking and turns it into an asset. Without a huge cast and elaborate sets, our entire focus is on the performances and reactions of the four leads, and they are riveting. And the end is as satisfying as a good Chuck Norris movie.
Note that one scene of over-the-top, unneeded gore, which earned horror effects honors, keeps this from being a perfect Western. I’m sure horror fans live for blood-curdling terror, but it’s off-putting to the average Western fan. Bone Tomahawk takes villainy to a new level not delved into since Wes Studi’s Magua’s cold, blood-thirsty, killing scenes in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans. Scalping isn’t new and his been seen in plenty of pictures, if not so brutally at the center of a scene, but preparing a cowboy for dinner isn’t something anyone should want to see. Zahler also goes out of his way, maybe like never before, to dodge potential political correctness attacks of the “cowboys vs Indians” variety that is part and parcel of any cowboy Western. The villain “savages” themselves are racist, they have an inhuman hunger for human flesh, and one scene features a Native American very firmly distancing himself from the villains in no uncertain terms to make clear the villains aren’t “Indians”.
Look for a welcome cameo by Sean Young as the mayor’s wife.
The bottom line? It would be easy to skip this film if you only knew it from a slew of Fangoria Chainsaw Awards and Fright Meter Awards. But Bone Tomahawk is an authentic Western, and a great first effort by writer/director S. Craig Zahler. We must see more movies from him. Soon.
Pick up Bone Tomahawk now on DVD and Blu-ray at Amazon.com here. It’s also streaming on Amazon Prime.