Film review: Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell shines in this Cult Classic of a Horror Western.

Bone Tomahawk marks the directorial debut of S. Craig Zahler (who also wrote the script). His previous movie writing credit was for the 2011 horror thriller Asylum Blackout (or The Incident).

In an interview, Zahler states that the gruesome elements of Bone Tomahawk had to be disturbing enough to scare himself, or there was no point in including them at all. This results in bone-crunching scenes that illustrate the brutality of Zahler‘s Wild West and a climax to the film with visceral gore of the most extreme kind. This film is certificated 18 for good reason.

The story starts near the western town of Bright Hope, where we are introduced to Purvis and Buddy who make a living by killing and robbing travellers. Unfortunately, they stumble across a Native American burial ground where they encounter members of a reclusive tribe, with unfortunate results.

The law in Bright Hope is upheld by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), his deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) and Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the town’s elderly backup deputy. Following a horse theft and murder in the town, a Native American man is brought in to examine an arrow left at the now deserted jailhouse. The arrow is evidence of a cannibalistic clan of cave-dwelling savages who live in the “Valley of the Starving Men”. It is believed that members of this clan have abducted a group of townspeople, including Deputy Nick and Samantha (Lili Simmons), the wife of town doctor Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), who had been resting at home with a broken leg. So Sheriff Hunt sets off to find and rescue the abductees with the help of backup deputy Chicory, Arthur O’Dwyer (broken leg and all), and Brooder (Matthew Fox), the town’s womanizer who is well educated and makes no secret of his Indian killing credentials.

Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell stars in this peculiar genre blend of Horror and Western

Slowed down by the injured O’Dwyer, the group travel for days. This leaves plenty of time for talk. The dialogue throughout the film is pithy, with a comic irony of understatement, reminiscent of Tarantino at his best. The interplay between Sheriff Hunt and Chicory is particularly well judged. Chicory plays everything from fool to philosopher, and his moments of unexpected eloquence are genuinely funny. O’Dwyer passionately grunts and grimaces his way through the long journey while faced with the underlying threat of amputation. Matthew Fox as Brooder starts off as the arrogant and immaculately turned-out braggart, but later proves that he is not just ‘all talk’.

The film’s denouement is shocking, but it’s impossible to look away, as it is just so well done. Zahler is masterly in his direction of the cave scenes. The juxtaposition between the horror that unfolds and the characters’ impossibly positive attitude is wonderfully awkward. In the case of Samantha, it almost seems like she is unaware of what is going on around her, as she appears so unconcerned with her predicament. This has an alienating effect on the viewer and is a characteristic of the ‘cult movie’, which is exactly what this film is.

When the dust of California has finally settled we are left with an extremely well-made and original take on the western. It is a black comedy of the very darkest kind and the perfectly cast Kurt Russell shines in this movie made on a shoestring budget of just $1.8m. He must have done it for free!

Bone Tomahawk is an instant cult classic that you’ll find yourself thinking about for days afterward.

Author – Simon, Norwich store