Sunday, November 8, 2015

Bone Tomahawk - Flawed Characters On A Moral Quest- This Western with its quiet romance and unflinching horror is this year's Sleeper

Bone Tomahawk, which is being referred to by many as a horror Western, is a character driven movie full of surprises. Written and directed by (first time dirctor) S.Craig Zahler, it feels like a director's cut, like Zahler's vision before any "powers that be" got there hands on it and I love that. This film is drenched in love and respect for not only the genre (as blended and twisted as it may be) but the characters Zahler created. Shot in a classic style, there is almost a sense that every image you see could of been framed with a camera of the era portrayed minus the gun powder flash. There are no dramatic camera movement and the color pallet feels consistent and kind of muted like the tone of the film itself. Zahler infuses a reverence and etiquette of the times (as he sees it). All that attention to detail pays off in a big way.

The basic framework is a familiar one of loved ones being abducted and a ragtag team set off to rescue them. It is as old as John Fords 1956 iconic film The Searchers, which has been paid homage to many times from Lawrence of Arabia to the Breaking Bad episode "Felina" to Star Wars, and while, the monstrous abductors in Bone Tomahawk are a race of cannibalistic Troglodytes (as opposed to Comanches or the "Prophets of the Dark Side") that uniquely human code to save a loved one and the moral obligation to do so under unspeakable odds hooks you in instantly. While I say instantly, Zahler takes his time to tell his story but the languid pace of the movie absolutely works and mirrors the dogged steady resolve of the heroes who must know with a certainty that they are walking into a den of death (or potentially so).

Months ago, the internet was ablaze with the descriptor "Cannibal Horror Western" which is kind of a shame. Just hearing those three words together make you feel that Bone Tomahawk might be a kind of purposely made B movie with Kurt Russell deftly dispatching the monsters. The opposite is true, this is definitely an A movie with A listers. The casting is perfect. Russell plays the stoic, "by the book" small town sheriff Franklin Hunt, Patrick Wilson plays Arthur O'Dwyer, a good as gold cowboy who aspires to be a ranch foreman who is married to the smart and spunky, Samantha O'Dwyer played by Lili Simmons. A lean, almost gaunt Matthew Fox plays the perfectly coiffed and dressed in white gunslinger / indian killer / racist John Brooder whose deep hate for Native Americans felt very much inspired by John Wayne's character in The Searchers and Richard Jenkins wonderfully plays the enthusiastic "backup deputy" Chicory whose constant out of left field ramblings create the comedic tone of the film. His character also serves as the moral barometer and in this way he kind of reminded me of the Dale Horvath character (played by Jeffrey DeMunn) in the first few seasons of the Walking Dead. David Arquette plays Purvis, a wretched bottom feeder drifter who by his actions has unwittingly lured a small contingent of cannibalistic cave dwellers to the town of Bright Hope. Oddly enough, Arquette also played in the 1999 black comedy horror movie Ravenous that also dealt with cannibalism.

I do not want to say more about the plot lines because this movie deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. The strength of this movie is it's slow burn nature, it's love of dialogue and it's moral center. The quiet before the storm is it's strength. In so many movies you don't care whatsoever about the characters or what happens to them. In Bone Tomahawk you do. Whether it be O'Dwyers lovely poem (that is not a poem) or Chicory's non stop babble or Brooder's back story confessions or Sheriff Hunt's authoritarian promises, it is Zahler's dialogue that has so much impact because it all feels so real.  Like the staid tone of the cinematography the spoken words in this film don't feel out of place. The movie does not rest on cinematic hyperbole. It does rest on superb acting all around and Zahler's ability to deceptively ratchet up the tension throughout the entire film. Because the film opens with Arquette (and someone who shall remain nameless) stepping on some truly scary, evil toes the sense of unease starts right away infecting everything that occurs afterward. Even tender moments have a sense of dread bubbling underneath.

As this is being called a horror- western, I must speak a little bit about the horror element. To me, this move does not feel like a horror movie per say at all. There are gore hounds who will surely post a specifically graphic and shocking scene up on Youtube and I hate that for a number of reasons but mostly because it devalues what this movie is. The graphic scenes in Bone Tomahawk, in fact, are stunningly disturbing because for all intense and purpose this is not a typical "horror" movie. The film's narrative does not hinge on horror or scares at it's core. The violence and graphic depictions are essential to the story as such scenes would be essential in a movie that takes place during World War 2. The violence does not really feel gratuitous even though it is depicted in an unflinching way. The slow burn build up where we, in essence, bond with these flawed men on this suicide mission fully engages our emotions and that is the crux of the story.  Near the end of Bone Tomahawk there is something that Sheriff Hunt (Russell) says to his trusted back up deputy Chicory (Jenkins) as they part company that is so beautiful and romantic that I felt it must of been uttered before in some movie somewhere. Maybe it has or maybe it hasn't. Either way, the utterance of these words are simply top notch writing. There is a lot of that in this movie. Great job Mr. S.Craig Zahler. I salute you.
Robb Donker

NOTE: This movie seems to have a limited release but can currently be seen ON DEMAND.
It is Unrated and is hitting about 89% on Rotten Tomatoes.


  1. There are some scenes in this movie which were perhaps the most gruesome I have ever seen on film. So, that said, if you have squimishness even after watching years of The Walking Dead, this may not be the movie for you. The characters were solidly western and very humorously played in an understated way. Kurt Russell nailed this one, as did all the actors.Very original, intense, and not perfect for some reviewers, this is the best western horror film I could suggest to you. Just a great, entertaining, horrific western story...

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    1. This movie has kind of stayed off the grid but as you say, it is so great.

    2. This movie has kind of stayed off the grid but as you say, it is so great.