Bone Tomahawk review

After slaughtering a band of travellers in their sleep and looting the bodies, murderous drifters Purvis (Arquette) and Buddy (The Devil’s Rejects’ Haig) get more than they bargain for when they blunder into a weird native burial ground and Purvis barely escapes with his life.

Wandering into the town of Bright Hope, his luck doesn’t get any better when a confrontation in the town saloon with local lawman Sheriff Hunt (Russell) earns him a bullet in the leg and a cell in the town jail. When Bright Hope’s doctor proves indisposed, his assistant Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) is called on to remove the bullet from Purvis’ leg leaving her husband Arthur (Wilson) laid up at home with a broken leg. But while Samantha is treating the wounded outlaw, the jail is attacked and she, Purvis and a luckless deputy (Jonigkeit) are carried off into the night by a tribe of savages.

Ignoring Native American The Professor (McClarnon) who warns that the attackers are a “spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who rape and eat their own mothers” Hunt, Arthur, surviving deputy Chicory (Jenkins) and dapper gunslinger and Indian killer Brooder (Fox) set off for the “Valley of the Starving Men” intent on rescuing the captives before they are eaten alive by the clan of cannibal trogladytes who dwell there. What awaits them is madness, death and unimaginable horror…

Leaving aside Tarantino’s moronic, execrable Reservoir Dogs retread The Hateful Eight, also starring Russell (with a prominent supporting role for his moustache) the Western has seen something of a resurgence in recent years with movies such as The Homesman, The Keeping Room, Slow West and Danish revenge drama The Salvation bringing true grit and authenticity while celebrating the tropes of the traditional oater. Now imagine The Searchers remade by Cannibal Holocaust’s Ruggero Deodato with the authentically grimy sensibilities, attention to character and love of beautifully sculpted dialogue of Deadwood with a seam of dark comedy blacker than a devil’s heart.

Lean, mean and stripped-to-the-bone (quite literally in one scene), novelist (and one-time black metal drummer) Zahler’s debut feature as writer/director, Bone Tomahawk is a spare, measured, knowing celebration of the archetypes of the Western that sits tall in the saddle alongside the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks and, appropriately enough, Sam Peckinpah for it’s first two thirds before galloping into gruesome splatterpunk territory closer to the work of author and Stephen King-proclaimed “scariest guy in America” Jack Ketchum (particularly Off Season or his Western novella The Crossings) for it’s grisly finale.

Largely unseen for much of the film until it’s Grand Guignol final act, Bone Tomahawk’s nightmarish, mud-painted tribe of savage cavemen are truly terrifying and otherworldly, disfiguring and modifying themselves with animal tusks, communicating only by grunts, screams and the bone whistles implanted in their throats. But it’s Zahler’s eschewing of mocking self-awareness (not a charge one can lay at Tarantino’s door) and committing fully to his characters and their predicament, allowing a quartet of talented actors at the top of their game to do some of their best work in years, that makes Bone Tomahawk more than just a nasty genre mash-up. Unfolding at a slow, lyrical rhythm with, one notable exception aside, a soundtrack devoid of score, Zahler takes the time to let you get to know these men, to understand them, to like them even, so that by the time he throws them into the meat grinder, it hurts.

Russell, as ever, is wonderful as the tough, hard-bitten sheriff, a role that fits him like a glove, but there’s a vulnerability to his performance. His Hunt is a man whose best years are behind him and he knows it. He’s still fast enough to best a smalltown drunk or drifter but he’s slowing up and his eyes aren’t what they used to be. He’s getting old, has gotten old, and all he really wants to do is enjoy his semi-retirement. He’s still Kurt Russell but this is a Kurt Russell we’ve never seen before.

Similarly, Wilson - an actor who almost seems to have been born to play wounded, impotent, emasculated men - here surprises as the faithful husband manning up and transcending his shortcomings (in this case the broken leg that hobbles him) to do what a man’s gotta do. Even if that does mean gruelingly resetting his leg mid-expedition. Fox meanwhile is mesmerising as the mannered dandy and brutal killer, a vain, preening, racist rattlesnake in an incongrously cream suit who gets all the best lines but is self-aware enough to know he’s an empty vessel.

It’s Jenkins though that provides Bone Tomahawk with a beating, human heart. More familiar playing middle-class, middle-management types like the stressed Mob middleman in Killing Them Softly or the bored technician in Cabin In The Woods, Jenkins here is refreshingly cast against type as the almost comic sidekick that in a Howard Hawks movie would have been played by Walter Brennan - the goodhearted, not terribly effectual or bright deputy - bringing a melancholy pathos to such a stock character. The warmth between him and Russell in their scenes together is a joy and it’s the vibrancy of the interplay between these four very different men that allows Bone Tomahawk to get as dark as it does.

And it gets very dark. Bones are broken, smashed, throats slashed and sawed, guts disemboweled, bodies are hacked, dismembered, flesh pierced, ripped and rent, devoured, in gleefully graphic, unflinchingly grisly detail that will satisfy the most demanding gorehounds while daring the rest of the audience to not look away.

Stark, droll and unrelentingly tense, Bone Tomahawk is an instant cult classic, a dark, disturbing, intelligent murder ballad of the Old West.

David Watson is a Screenjabber contributor

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