I’d been waiting over a year to see Bone Tomahawk. It had played the US festivals and had a US release, then languished waiting for a UK release for literally months before receiving a less than decent distribution in the UK from 19th February. Ridiculous for a genre Western starring Kurt Russell, yet that’s how it happened.
What’s the point of that opening rant? Bone Tomahawk is fantastic. So damn good. It delivers on so many levels and yet the majority of the UK won’t get a chance to see it. Shame on everyone.
Bone Tomahawk tells the story of the small town of Bright Hope (an unashamedly great tongue-in-cheek name) where the lawman’s (Kurt Russell) word is gospel and the people fall in line. But when a drifter arrives in town having desecrated a savage tribe’s burial ground things go to hell.
The tribe follow the drifter and take him, along with the town’s medic Samantha O-Dwyer and Deputy Nick to their mountain hideout several days ride away. That leaves four brave men, Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), the Back-Up Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a dandy gunsmith John Brooder (Matthew Fox) and Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt to ride after them and enact a rescue.
What none of them realise is just how savage the ‘Troglodytes’ are; being cannibals with warped voice boxes and almost supernatural predilections for torture and mutilation, the horror is sure to meet them with sharp axes.
But that’s me getting way ahead. Because the film really is one of two halves, or perhaps two thirds followed by a final, insane third. Very much in the same league as Dusk Til Dawn, the majority of Bone Tomahawk is a delightful road trip style movie, where each of the four lead characters are fleshed out through intimate scenes around campfires and riding horseback over stunning vistas. The screenplay is filled with gems and memorable one-liners, but also allows each man’s story to come forth in an organic way that endears you to each of them differently. Perhaps Richard Jenkins’ somewhat bumbling, kind hearted Chicory steals the show here, offering humour and pathos in equal measure and doing so in a way that feels authentic and not just comic relief for the sake of it.
What’s impressive is the amount of tension first time feature director S. Craig Zahler creates even in these quiet moments. Whether it be the fact that Patrick Wilson’s character has a wounded leg that seems bound to snap any moment should the terrain get rocky, or the promise of wandering bandits coming to kill them in their sleep, you are never a few seconds away from feeling taught, and it is this ever building tension that unleashes as the cowboys encounter their foe.
I can’t really talk about the last act of the film. If you’ve seen Dusk Til Dawn then in the same way you wouldn’t want the big reveal at the Titty Twister club to be spoiled, so you need this to stay a secret. But it does get insane, and it does so quickly, mercilessly and in a way which might have you bringing up your dinner if you have a weak stomach.
The fact that it doesn’t quite make sense in a period Western is all the better as it clearly takes the characters off guard as much as it does us as audience. The transition from character driven drama to unflinching horror is immediate and visceral, and the film should be granted an Oscar for best Sound Design if nothing else, such is the reaction it provokes.
What I can say is that if you can abide the shock and horror in a way that makes it somehow palatable as a whole movie experience, then you will, as I did, walk out of Bone Tomahawk with a big smile and a desire to watch it many more times. I warn you, however, that if you can’t take the heat, so to speak, you will be left feeling vulnerable and a bit sick for the rest of the day.
Either way that means Bone Tomahawk is a massive success, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it somewhere near the top of my top ten list at the end of the year.