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Bone Tomahawk

D: S. Craig Zahler / 132m

Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Kathryn Morris, Fred Melamed, Sean Young, Sid Haig, Evan Jonigkeit

The quiet town of Bright Hope finds itself host to thief and murderer Purvis (Arquette). With his behaviour proving suspicious to town deputy, Chicory (Jenkins), Purvis’s attempt to resist arrest by the sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Russell) leads to his being shot in the leg and put in jail. Later the same night, while being tended by the town’s medic, Samantha O”Dwyer (Simmons), and guarded by young deputy Nick (Jonigkeit), the jail is attacked and the trio are abducted.

When this is discovered the next morning, Hunt seeks advice from a local Indian scout as to who could have done such a thing, as a peculiarly shaped arrow was found at the scene. The scout is quick to tell Hunt that it’s the work of troglodytes, a flesh-eating “clan” that live in the nearby hills; he also tells Hunt he won’t go with him as any attempt to rescue the missing will be guaranteed to fail, and anyone who goes will die. Hunt has no choice but to go, as does Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Wilson), even though he recently broke his right leg and it’s still in a splint. John Brooder (Fox), the man who introduced the O’Dwyer’s to each other, feels obliged to go, and despite Hunt’s objections, Chicory insists on going as well.

The four set out alone into the nearby hills. They encounter a couple of Mexicans who prove to be scouts for a larger group of bandits. When the bandits attack one night, Brooder is injured, and O’Dwyer’s broken leg is further damaged. With no choice but to reset his leg, and leave him to recover – and if able to, follow them later – Hunt, Brooder and Chicory continue on. As they get nearer to the hills where the troglodytes are supposed to live, the trio begin to hear strange unearthly noises. Hunt is convinced these are warnings; the discovery of human and animal skulls near to a gulley serves as a further caution. When they’re ambushed by a group of troglodytes, Brooder suffers a more serious injury, while Hunt’s left arm is hit by an arrow, and Chicory recieves a nasty head wound. With Brooder too injured to continue, Hunt and Chicory make their way nearer to the cave that appears to be the troglodytes home. But they’re ambushed again and this time they’re captured and taken to the troglodytes’ cave. Meanwhile, O’Dwyer regains consciousness, and sets out to follow the others and  rescue his wife…

Bone Tomahawk - scene

A strange, mercurial hybrid of Western and Horror, Bone Tomahawk is a movie that consistently outdoes its low budget in terms of originality, unexpected twists and turns in the narrative, and a recurring sense of humour that often threatens to undermine the seriousness of the drama, but which actually works as an escape valve for the tension that first-time director Zahler seems able to pull together at will. At times, this isn’t a movie for the faint-hearted or the squeamish – Nick’s fate is particularly gruesome – but in amongst the sometimes extreme violence and the matter-of-fact tone that accompanies it, Zahler manages to explore themes of masculinity, comradeship, loss, self-sacrifice, and most surprisingly of all, manifest destiny.

From the outset, this is a Western that isn’t interested in telling a typical Western story, and although it bears a (very) basic resemblance to John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), it soon abandons any pretense at wanting to emulate that classic movie by taking a no-nonsense approach to the times, and the events that unfold. It also steers away from traditional Western motifs by having its quartet of lawful avengers put at a disadvantage right from the start, with O’Dwyer’s broken leg proving exactly the type of hindrance that’s likely to get them all killed. When they’re forced to leave him behind, not only does the size of their task increase, but also the likelihood of their ending up as buffet for the troglodytes increases too; they soldier on because they want to for each other, not because they have to for the abductees, which was how they set out.

By changing this kind of stance along the way, and by making their opponents so animalistic as to be unreasonable, Zahler avoids any sentimentality that might occur in a regular Western, and isn’t afraid to put his characters through the wringer, so much so that there are times when the viewer isn’t sure if any of the quartet will survive, or if they do, how intact they’ll be. With a rugged, inhospitable looking backdrop to the action (expertly rendered by DoP Benji Bakshi), the main characters’ confidence is slowly eroded by their surroundings and the troglodytes’ uncompromising ferocity, and this is where Zahler’s ability to ratchet up the tension is most prevalent – how are they going to get out of this alive? It’s an interesting question, as by the movie’s end it’s not about the survival of the fittest, but survival at any cost.

With so many weighty themes to incorporate, and with the violence and escalating tension proving so effective, it’s left to Jenkins’ daft, lovably clueless deputy to provide some much needed humour. There’s a lovely moment when he insists a travelling flea circus was operated by real live fleas, and he continually misunderstands things that have been said or done. Jenkins strikes just the right note of encroaching senility mixed with amiable foolishness and is a joy to watch as a result. Elsewhere, Russell’s flinty portrayal of Hunt will remind viewers of his turn as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993), and his whiskers should by rights be given a movie of their own. It’s good to see him play a character who makes so many mistakes, and if he maintains a degree of unshakeable tenacity throughout, then the movie is all the better for it (even if it’s cruelly undermined by the troglodyte leader’s treatment of him).

Bone Tomahawk - scene2

As the equally tenacious O’Dwyer, Wilson is headstrong, determined and completely focused on the task ahead, even though O’Dwyer will suffer for it. As his captive wife, Simmons is appealing and vulnerable, and more resigned to her fate than anyone would surmise. Both give credible performances and are matched by Fox’s belligerent martinet Brooder, a man as out of place in the quartet as he is oddly appealing. With Arquette and Morris (as Hunt’s wife) offering strong support, the movie benefits from having assembled a fine cast who are all committed to telling the tale at hand, and their are fine turns from the likes of Haig and Melamed in minor roles that add to the richness of the characters.

With a low budget fixed in place, Zahler is forced to resort to some necessary sleight of hand in telling his story. The troglodytes’ cave is reduced to one static location that features little in the way of set dressing, and there’s a sense that the exterior scenes were all shot in the same place but from different angles to hide the repetition. There’s also a problem with the pace, as some scenes – notably those where Hunt et al travel to the hills – are flat and in need of tightening up. Otherwise, Zahler’s debut is a taut, gripping endeavour that breathes new life into a (mostly) moribund genre, and is a great way of announcing there’s a new director in town who’s definitely worth watching out for.

Rating: 8/10 – a surprise on so many levels, Bone Tomahawk is an uncompromising,  unapologetic movie that revels in its ability to subvert the Western genre, and gives us a tribe of inbred cannibals that easily surpasses the cartoon equivalents in the Wrong Turn series; with a great cast clearly relishing their roles, and assured writing and direction from Zahler, this is meaty stuff indeed, and a rare treat.

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