‘Bone Tomahawk’ tosses an exceptional, gritty and gory western onto big and small screens
Writer/director: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox
During a time just after the U.S. Civil War, “Bone Tomahawk” presents the small western town of Bright Hope as a peaceful community. Well, peaceful is a relative term. Small municipalities on the American frontier in the 19th Century were anything but peaceful. This was the Wild West, and the land bled violence. In this respect, Bright Hope is no different than any other place during that era.
It is a place where Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) will shout - to an unknown person hiding in a barn - “If you don’t say who you are, I’ll shoot you dead.”
It is a place where the drinks from the local saloon, The Learned Goat, will make you feel “like a tree fell on you.” If it is not the alcohol, a mysterious gunfighter could shoot you down in a blink of an eye.
Soon, however, a few of its residents will face a formidable group of people who will terrify the most rugged fragments of their souls. In writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s exceptional debut feature film, four brave men cross a desolate landscape for days to rescue two townsfolk and a drifter from a frightening community of cannibalistic cave dwellers. Zahler certainly weaves a distinct twist on the American western by adding the aforementioned antagonists. Some moments in the picture clearly feel, look and sound like horror, but about 90 percent of the film successfully plays like a western, and at times, a sensational one.
The picture depicts a violent, primeval tone right away as the camera focuses its opening shot on the face of a sleeping stranger as someone grabs his throat and uses a large, dullish knife to dig, cut and slash into it. From the get-go, one knows this movie will earn its R-rating. This event and another ugly sequence eventually lead this someone - a murderous thief named Purvis (David Arquette) - to Bright Hope, and he unknowingly leads a small band of cannibals with him. The group of outsiders kidnap Purvis and two others, so Sheriff Hunt (Russell), his deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), an insensitive gunfighter (Matthew Fox), and a cowboy (Patrick Wilson) head out on a “suicidal” rescue mission.
The film places a key life obstacle in their way (which I will not reveal) as well as plenty of problems from Mother Nature on this doomed trip, and although the movie carries an undertone of dread, Zahler’s brilliant writing offers lots of humor, which provides intermittent bouts of relief for the audience. For example, Jenkins’ Chicory steals several scenes, and every on-screen minute with him is a joy. Chicory, an elderly deputy who leans on his sheriff to do most of the thinkin’, constantly babbles, asks obvious questions and uses inappropriate comments. When Brooder (Fox) calls him an imbecile, Chicory responds by claiming his wife called him that particular label for years.
Many of the scenes in Bright Hope (prior to the big ride) also contain moments of levity. For instance, The Learned Goat’s piano player charges three cents per song, but three songs will cost a dime. When Brooder asks why the upcharge for three songs, this rural pianist says that he gets tired when playing three. The script is laced with both subtle and blatant humor, and they add a richness to the story and a sense of comfort with these characters.
The four characters - admittedly - are one-dimensional within their respective silos of expertise, but together they form a terrific team. Their underdog role is obvious, but through their verbal jousting and forced bonding due to unenviable circumstances, these talented actors let their characters gel as a unit, and we, the audience, are thankful.
I am also thankful that Zahler took much care in capturing the right concoction of sights and sounds on the open range. With no population centers between “Here” and “There”, the film truly portrays a clear sense of vulnerability due to the raw and unforgiving terrain. Death by outlaws, opposing tribes, the heat, scarcity of water, and/or four-legged or no-legged (snakes) critters are all possible on the way to fight an unknown group of cannibals, and long brutal shots in the beating sun and cold spaces in stark darkness do not furnish warm, fuzzy feelings.
From a sound-perspective, silence surrounds these four in the great outdoors, and many times we only hear the crunching of desert plants underfoot, the clogging of hoofs or the crackling of campfires. With most of the film captured in the wild, these specific moments – which break the silence - do not appear by happened circumstance but are completely purposeful.
Be warned: As the many ways “Bone Tomahawk” offers welcomed western traditions, the ultimate fight with the cannibals defies convention. Although these scenes are short-lived, they are grotesque and beyond brutal. One specific 20-second, monstrous visual has unfortunately seared into my brain for all of eternity. (Help!) Undoubtedly, the last 30 minutes of this picture are not for the weak of heart and/or stomach, and quite frankly, some moments are more than unnecessary. On the other hand, the film’s celebration of the American western and its unique, gory turn leave a lasting cinematic experience. Bright Hope might be typical and ordinary, but “Bone Tomahawk” is not. (3.5/4 stars)
“Bone Tomahawk” opens at AMC Deer Valley (and is available on iTunes and VOD) on Oct. 23.