‘Bone Tomahawk,’ is a bleak but elegant novelty – the kind of Spaghetti Western film layered in Sergio Leone roots, but lurking beneath the surface hides a grim ‘Cannibal Holocaust,’ undertone. It begins with two bandits (short but sublime performances from Sid Haig and David Arquette) slashing a human throat, the sound of blood gushing like a creek and a short duologue of the importance of severing the right vein in a neck. They come across what appears to be an Indian Burial ground and have a ruthless and short interaction with the Savages, or Troglodytes, the film’s brutally violent, nearly supernatural cannibalistic villains.
One of the bandits manages to escape and ends up in the peaceful town of Bright Hope – unknowingly leading the band of Troglodytes with him. After a terse standoff in the local tavern, the sheriff shoots the drifter in the leg and throws him in jail. Calling for the town’s doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (played by Lili Simmons,) the savages arrive in the dead of night and kidnap the bandit drifter, the doctor and one of the town’s deputies. The doctor turns out to be the wife of a local rancher and wannabe poet, Arthur O’Dwyer (played by Patrick Wilson.) He’s got an injured leg following a fall from his roof that’s verging on gangrene, but once he realises that his wife has been taken, he joins a small, four-man rescue party with sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) who has the weathered confidence and drawl that’s reminiscent of his performances in ‘Tombstone,’ and ‘The Hateful Eight,’ John Brooder, a handsome dandy gunslinger wearing all white (Matthew Fox, from the TV series Lost) and the sheriff’s aging deputy named Chicory (Richard Jenkins.) In Particular, Fox does his best film work in a long time as a cold hearted man, guarded and insular with a veiled history of womanising, whilst Jenkins brings a grounding to the kindly old man role.
On their first night in the wilderness, their horses are stolen and they are forced to continue on foot – the rest of the movie follows them on their journey across a barren and desolate landscape to find the Troglodytes and the captured settlers. It’s an uneasy mixture of character development and quick dialogue fortified with dry humor and unsettling horror that will leave you cringing at the screen. Zahler’s script is clever and tight, and his direction strong throughout. There are a few pacing issues once the horses are stolen, and some viewers may be turned off by the sudden intensity of the final act, which veers into the torture porn element of an Eli Roth movie (including a man being scalped alive, a hip-flask being inserted into a recently opened wound and a man literally being torn in half,) but it’s a refreshing take on a western. At no point was I ever bored during the film; even though the film runs just over the two hour mark, and could have been shaved here and there to trim the fat, the tension is superbly wound like a coiled jack-in-the-box – I had come to care about these characters and was wondering when the box would spring open.
When the violence comes, it’s intense – the Savages ‘speak’ to each other like the dinosaur raptors in ‘Jurassic Park,’ with purpose made bone fragments inserted in their windpipes, which makes them a formidable and deadly boogey-men characters. On the outset, ‘Bone Tomahawk,’ could have easily slipped into a generic western/horror hybrid, and it’s a shame that it only had a limited release over in the UK, but if you get the chance, it’s a highly recommended depiction of the paranoid settler community in the 1800’s – entwined with the savage brutality of its time.
Squirting Lemon Juice in your eye
Review by Anthony Self