Kurt Russell stars as a local sheriff in this tense, modern spin on John Ford’s classic The Searchers, though Bone Tomahawk isn’t exactly what you would call a straightforward western. It certainly feels like one for long periods, but there are pockets of gore here and there that mark it out as a horror film, and a pretty good one to boot. It begins with two disreputable drifters (one of whom is played by David Arquette) stumbling upon and desecrating a Native American burial ground. The pair are subsequently attacked before Arquette’s character Purvis makes his way to a nearby small settlement (the ironically-named Bright Hope, where Russell’s character Hunt is the sheriff), but he has been followed all the way. A raiding party kills settlors and horses in Bright Hope and three people are taken hostage from the town’s jail: Purvis, the local doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons) and a man named Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Hunt gathers together a posse who set out intent on retrieving the townsfolk and killing the raiders in an act of retribution.
If this all sounds familiar, what sets Bone Tomahawk aside from a number of westerns (both modern and old) is its startling depiction of the antagonists. Writer and first-time director S. Craig Zahler is referencing Hollywood’s earlier, non-PC depictions of Native Americans as savages to an extent, but he takes things to an extreme level, creating a terrifying group of violent, troglodyte cannibals whose actions ensure that the film lodges itself in your memory (far more so than any of the supposedly ‘civilised’ characters we meet, who are surprisingly well-drawn in themselves). When we first see one of these figures he’s shot from distance and partly hidden in shadow, so there’s a suggestion that he may not be human; the troglodyte’s method of communication – using freakish, piercing shrieks – bears this out too, at least initially. Later in the film the actions of these cave-dwellers become ever more savage, even if they are carried out for a reason; by then we’ve witnessed savagery from the Bright Hope townspeople too, most notably the racist Brooder (Matthew Fox), who claims to have noble intentions for joining the rescue mission but is probably there so that he can legitimately kill anyone who isn’t white. He holds the troglodytes in contempt, but his attitude towards and treatment of a pair of Mexican men who stumble across the posse’s camp at night is somehow colder, and possibly completely unnecessary.
Zahler manages to sustain the viewer’s interest in the four men as they conduct their search for the prisoners, which is impressive in itself, but it’s the final act of the film that makes the biggest impression. The violence here is brutal, and the camera doesn’t shy away from some of the more gruesome and bizarre sights that unfold. The shocks are sudden, too: arrows and attackers seemingly come out of nowhere, and there is little or no prior warning for certain acts that will, at the very least, make you flinch uncomfortably. The one shame is that Zahler has made such an effort to make an unconventional movie that’s hard to second-guess – there are several points where you wonder whether anyone will be left standing at the end – before delivering the kind of conventional ending that you feared he might succumb to. Still, that’s not completely to the detriment of what has passed before, as the film is packed with wit, surprises and surprising levels of insight (certainly when compared with many other B-movies, anyway). Bone Tomahawk is occasionally as funny as it is bloody, and the genre-hopping works well for the most part, while its cast – which also features Patrick Wilson and the imposing figures of Geno Segers and Raw Leiba – elevate the film with a number of colourful, interesting performances. (For what it’s worth, Russell is a much better fit here than he was in Tarantino’s recent western The Hateful Eight.)
Directed by: S. Craig Zahler.
Written by: S. Craig Zahler.
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Geno Segers, Raw Leiba, Jay Tavare, Sean Young, Sid Haig.
Cinematography: Benji Bakshi.
Editing: Greg D’Auria, Fred Raskin.
Music: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler.
Running Time: 132 minutes.