Stars: Matthew Fox, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Sid Haig, Maestro Harrell, James Tolkan, Kathryn Morris | Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Shot in just 21 days Bone Tomahawk is a slow burning western/horror hybrid. It stars Lost’s Matthew Fox, Hateful Eight’s man of the flared up moustache – slightly trimmed for this role – Kurt Russell, Cabin In The Woods’ Richard Jenkins and season two Fargo’s Patrick Wilson. This quartet of acting talent is forced together to go off in search of Wilson’s kidnapped wife (TV’s Lili Simmons), jailcell grifter Purvis (David Arquette) and the Deputy Sheriff (Evan Jonigkeit). They’ve been taken, we are told, by a primitive, violent tribe of native Americans known as troglodytes.
It’s safe to say that writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is trading more on its western credentials than it is horror ones. However, bloodthirsty gore-hounds do get their rewards with a brief switch in gruesome tone during the third act when the troglodytes get to show off violent charms. It includes such an extremely memorable, explicitly graphic moment that it deserves not to be spoilt – safe to say it will no doubt be the excruciating topic of conversation as you leave the theatre – the squeamish among you have been warned. By the time your first post-film coffee/beer arrives vivid memories of the brilliance that precedes this visceral conclusion and why you fell in love with the film will come flooding back.
Bone Tomahawk is chock-full of rounded, appealing characters that fizz and pop off one another’s idiosyncrasies. Favourite among them is Chicory (Jenkins). This old timer is the heart of the film. His bumbling widower-cum-back up sheriff to Russell reminds you, like the Coen Brother’s True Grit, that period realism isn’t about a cavalcade of cursing, misogyny and racism. Fox is the upstanding, self-made, eligible bachelor of their small town community, but he proves himself much more capable and daring in the face of life threatening danger than his clean cut dandy surface suggests. Wilson is recovering from a broken leg. He’s meant to be resting for the next 12 weeks, but no one, least of all Russell as Sheriff Hunt, is going to get in his way when it comes to rescuing his wife. He spends much of his time limping on a crutch or crawling along the ground. Bone Tomahawk is a frustratingly, long, hard slog for his character. Hunt starts out as a no-nonsense, well-meaning man of the law who just wants order in the town he’s been tasked with looking after. However, the smash’n’grab on his jailcell brings out his honourable, determined side – he makes a solemn promise to bring back Wilson’s wife.
Like last years Slow West (written and directed by John Maclean) and many other time served classics of the Western genre, Bone Tomahawk takes its time to get to the meat of the dilemma. Zahler’s script skilfully combines jeopardy the four men face a long the way with drawing out character details that encourage the audience to become invested in the individuals as well as the story. Much of the male bonding is the simplest of western scenes – four men around a camp-fire or riding on horeback shooting the breeze. This is always kept interesting by the almost childlike appreciation of being alive and being in the company of others that Chicory possesses. Despite being the oldest of the bunch, and the surviving half of a sincere, loving marriage, he seems the least jaded by what life has thrown his way. When Wilson’s leg injury worsens and renders him immobile for a few days the other three continue the rescue mission without him, but this medical hindrance proves to be a bit of boon in terms of how the finale plays out.
Bone Tomahawk feels like it was made by a filmmaker with a clear vision and understanding of what he hoped to achieve; with that clarity comes performances from actors who know exactly what they need to bring to the table beyond their starpower. Genre films that are this well made, endearing and restrained are so rare. What a treat it is when one finds its way to the big screen.
Bone Tomahawk is on limited release across the UK from February 19th.