S. Craig Zahler, 2015, USA-UK
There’s a reason that S. Craig Zahler's ‘Bone Tomahawk’ turned up on a lot on horror blogs. It packs a considerable punch and by the time you get there, you have been lulled into a false sense of security so it strikes all the more; that is, you probably will think you know its limits, although the opening throat cutting should have been a clue to what is to come. Where Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ plays with the genre of the spaghetti western, all full of colourful characters trying to outdo each other, recent films like ‘The Homesman’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’ all come from a more neo-realistic, revisionist slant, mired in the heartache and consequences of violence and showing up ‘Eight’ as a dress-up pastiche. ('The Revenant' falls somewhere in between all these.) Even the affectations of ‘Slow West’ point towards an emotional realism. However, Katie Rife suggests it makes more sense through the lens of Italian Spaghetti Westerns. But when ‘Bone Tomahawk’ gets to its third act, anyone familiar with Don’t-Go-There horror will know the geography, and this is a truly creepy and horrifying example. This is walking in the same doomed trail as ‘The Offspring’, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ and ‘Humains’, but in keeping its western neo-realism paramount it is all the more convincing and disturbing.
A gang of men go in search of feared tribe of “Troglodytes” – the film is careful to separate this clan from Native Americans, although how successfully is perhaps open to question – when they appear to have abducted a woman from the town. Kurt Russell leads the ill-matched rescue team, composed of a rambling “back-up deputy”, an obviously bigoted gunman and the kidnapped woman’s husband. As “backup deputy” Chicory, Richard Jenkins steals the show by providing the film with most of its humour: his non sequiturs are one of the film’s great sources of pleasure, but look closely and don’t be fooled: he maybe past his prime but he’ll deliver as best he can when needed. His friendship with Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt glues everything together and the writing never lets any narrowness of character create limitations. For example, Matthew Fox as the mercenary John Brooder goes someway to suggesting that beneath his brutality is something good struggling to get out; or Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer manages heroism in a role that could have quickly become annoying – the crippled but stubborn-no-matter-what character.
Elsewhere, Freddy Waff’s production design is also notable for being so credible (and perhaps it is inevitable that the cave scene will look most like a set) and Benji Bakshi's cinematography supplies the crisp visuals and pretty Western vistas (and has a western ever felt so chalky?); Jeff Herriot’s and S. Craig Zahler’s score is mournful and unobtrusive. And although all these details are consummate, ultimately ‘Bone Tomahawk’ is a story of strong meat, centred on themes of duty and sacrifice. The troglodytes are genuinely scary, frightening embodiments of male violence unmitigated by the civility of the other characters of Bright Hope that are just as defined by it. It is happy to have a slow build-up of characterisation to ensure its gratuitousness has maximum impact. A great and gruelling show.