Bone Tomahawk

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Bone Tomahawk
"Brutally effective in what it does overall, which is fuse western and horror tropes to create a slow-burning, visceral experience that, although not flawless, should ensure fans of both genres are satisfied."

Bone Tomahawk. Even the name sounds brutal to speak, and read. Brutality is exactly what director S Craig Mahler’s film, which he also wrote, delivers. It is also brutally effective in what it does overall, which is fuse western and horror tropes to create a slow-burning, visceral experience that, although not flawless, should ensure fans of both genres are satisfied.

The setting is a classic, isolated frontier town, Bright Hope, sometime in the mid 1800s. Late one night, convalescing local businessman Arthur O’Dwyer’s (Patrick Wilson) life is turned upside down when his wife, the town's backup doctor (Lili Simmons), is kidnapped while treating a patient in the jail. Clued in by an Indian resident that a strange, lost tribe of troglodytes might be responsible, given the strange, bone-decorated arrows and axes left behind, the grizzled and stoic Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) rounds up a disparate vigilante posse to go in pursuit, featuring his eccentric Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), local gunslinger and charmer Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the crippled O’Dwyer. They set off quickly to pick up the trail, facing a hard five-day ride, but their rescue soon terms into a nightmare blend that is one part The Searchers and a little bit The Hills Have Eyes. In case the gritty title didn’t clue you in, things do eventually get very bloody and many a bone is broken.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about this genre hybrid is how much care is paid towards the western aspects, and to building up the suspense. It would have been easy to speed the film towards a bloody massacre, but instead Zahler takes his time sketching out the township and the characters and letting the tension build, with the production design and use of location effective enough at creating a suitably dusty frontier wilderness feel.

Clothes and interiors look lived in, the characters have dirt under their fingernails and the iconography of the whole period feels present and correct. Despite a lengthy run-time, with much of it encompassing the vigilante group’s increasingly hairy trek through the wilderness, flavoursome, snappy dialogue and smart casting (Russell was simply born to play sheriffs and bounty hunters in Westerns) results in this being by far the strongest section of the film.

Even the supporting characters, played by Jenkins and Fox get to shine, with both getting a surprising number of good gags. So good are the character dynamics in fact, that the bone-crunching showdown with the cannibals (who the filmmakers are at pains to point out, somewhat awkwardly through the script, are not American Indians but weird proto-humans whom even the native peoples think it is totally cool to kill) actually suffers by comparison, though it somehow feels like a credit to the director to point this out. After all, throwing blood and guts at the screen is easy, good character writing is hard.

Reviewed on: 14 Feb 2016
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Bone Tomahawk packshot
Four men set out in the Wild West to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.
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