Bone Tomahawk (2015) / Western-Horror

MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would definitely be R for strong, grisly violence, graphic images, strong sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 132 min.

Cast: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, Lili Simmons
Small role: Sean Young, Sid Haig, Kathryn Morris, Michael Pare, Fred Melamed
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Screenplay: S. Craig Zahler

Review published November 11, 2015

Set in the old West, a few inhabitants of the flyspeck frontier town of Bright Hope end up disappearing one day, thought to perhaps have been kidnapped by cannibalistic, desert cave-dwelling natives who are less than kind to any who tread on their ancient burial grounds.  Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell, Furious 7) leads a group of four through harsh territory to save their townsfolk from these so-called troglodytes, who are known to be sadistic cannibals with little regard for human life.

S. Craig Zahler ( writes and directs this hybrid Western, which takes a traditional oater storyline of a posse out to round up their loved ones and joins it with a shock-horror climax.  It's as if the men in The Searchers suddenly encounter the alien hunters from the movie Predator.  It's brutally violent and quite graphic, so know going in that killings will be performed in some grisly, horrific ways.  Zahler sidesteps racist claims by making the professor in Bright Hope an educated professor who eschews the ways of his ancestors, who've obviously gone awry, claiming they're troglodytes, essentially inbred monsters who are no longer part of the venerable Native American people, or of the human race.  Though it might feel like a random kind of film, Zahler's approach is actually quite calculated, diligently putting all of his ducks in a row, though not always cleanly, allowing for room to breath for his characters that most genre film directors would have trimmed down to near nonexistence. 

Zahler also benefits from a nice cast, especially in seeing the always reliable Kurt Russell revisit the western genre again twenty-two years after the modern classic Tombstone.  Interestingly, it's one of two Westerns to be released in the latter half of 2015 for Russell, along with the much more high-profile Hateful Eight.  A very nice supporting turn by a nearly unrecognizable Richard Jenkins (White House Down) as Hunt's shaky but faithful elderly reserve deputy Chicory gives the film the nuance it needs to make him feel like a lived-in character in a movie that too often feels like a set-and-costume artifice. 

The other two members of the posse are Patrick Wilson (Stretch), playing an injured rancher trying to get back his beloved wife while his broken leg hasn't quite mended, and Matthew Fox (Speed Racer), who plays a dandified amoral but skilled gunman who is mostly out there because he enjoys killing Indians and wants to rack up his kill count.  They do exude a certain look for the film, but both are a bit vanilla as actors for such an outlandish western, and their lack of credible stubble despite traveling for several days is a persistent reminder we're watching a movie (to be fair, The Searchers, which some consider to be a masterpiece, also suffers from the same issue, though that one takes place over years rather than days). On the down side, Lili Simmons (Banshee), who plays the kidnapped wife, looks and sounds too modern, especially with highlighted hair and shaped eyebrows, to buy as an old-West frontier woman, possibly cast in order to spice up a superfluous sex scene early in the film.

As for the troglodytes, the less said the better, as discovering who they are and how they live is one of the film's better pleasures.  What I will say is that you may have to steal yourself for a few moments of wince-inducing violence that can be quite gory.  It's perhaps exploitative in a certain sense, but it's done in such a unique and daring way, there's always a high degree of unpredictability in how things play out.  We feel like all of these protagonists are in actual danger, and could come away not triumphant -- a subversion that keeps your interest in seeing if they will actually make it out alive at all, instead of just how.  Instead of a revenge Western, it becomes survival horror, pulling out the guts of the narrative inside out to unsettle us in some very intense and effective ways.

On the down side, the film, while always watchable, feels far too long in developing.  Viewers may grow anxious for the story to begin, showing a good deal of the home and work life of the main characters, but still not letting us get a good feel for them as real people.  There's also quite a few scenes that show the journey along the way, which is only a small number of days, but feels much longer because of all of the time exploring their trek.  At two hours and twelve minutes, it's quite slack in many scenes, and some scenes could have been excised altogether, which leads one to wonder why a tight and effective 95-minute chiller couldn't have been produced with this material without sacrificing the overall pleasures.  But then, do you really want to lose discussions on flea circuses and how to properly read in the bathtub without damaging the book, even if they don't factor into the story?  I probably wouldn't, but still, it could use tightening up.

Although the movie plays very straightforward in many respects, perhaps that's why when the story elements venture into offbeat, they seem so profoundly eerie.  The movie is sparsely scored, and unlike most recent Westerns, it doesn't romanticize its natural environs, shot at Paramount Ranch in Malibu, California; perhaps in both cases, it's due to a severely limited budget (reports indicate only $1.8 million).  That budget also led to practical effects gore, which often seems much more unnerving than anything that could be done with CGI, but you'll probably avert your eyes when it gets a little too intense to notice if things aren't 100% authentic.  The use of handheld cameras in particular is something that often distracts as a straight Western, though it does make you feel more like a spectator in the later, more horrific scenes of butchery.  Then there's the semi-parodic end theme song that is not only incongruous with the Western genre, but it's almost a literal interpretation of the movie -- a song so inappropriate to use, it also perfectly accentuates the anachronistically bizarre ride we've all been on for the last two hours-plus. 

Nevertheless, Bone Tomahawk is such a unique oddity that it has the potential to become a cult movie over time, if not instantly, as it is reminiscent of many movies in parts, but as a whole, it feels very much like a thing in its own universe.  While it's certainly not to every taste, if you find your taste in movies often encroaches into acquired ones, the distinct funky flavor of Bone Tomahawk may be just the strange flavor you'll come to genuinely savor.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo