By Last Caress.
Purvis (David Arquette, Scream) and Buddy (Sid Haig, The Devil’s Rejects) are drifters, and murderers. They pounce upon small, sleeping parties of travellers on the wide expanses of the not-quite-tamed countryside of post-Civil War America, slitting throats and plundering belongings as they go. We join them on what turns out to be their final attack. Shortly thereafter, they wander into a mountain pass decorated with animal skulls. And human skulls. The pass gives way to a large clearing into which our loathsome pair blithely stagger, oblivious to the huge carefully hewn circle on the ground, along with numerous other associated markings and stone piles. What is this place? Temple? Altar of sacrifice? Burial ground? Whatever it is, Purvis and Buddy have trampled through it, inhuman screams are emanating from all over the valley, and… oh! Buddy’s got an arrow through the neck, and Purvis is doing his best Usain Bolt impersonation. So begins Bone Tomahawk.
The story picks up eleven days later. Purvis has made it to the small and, from what little we can see, rather dour town of Bright Hope. The sheriff of Bright Hope is Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell, The Thing), and he is ably assisted in the rather simple running of this tiny outpost by his deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and their general dogsbody Chicory (Richard Jenkins, Six Feet Under), to whom Hunt charitably refers as his “backup” deputy. Hunt intercepts Purvis at the local saloon where he is unconvinced by Purvis’ story and unimpressed by his nakedly hostile demeanour. The confrontation concludes with Purvis in the town jail with a bullet in his foot. The town doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons, Banshee) is summoned to remove the bullet and Hunt instructs deputy Nick to oversee proceedings. Hunt’s off to bed for the night.
By morning, all the horses in the stable have been stolen, the stable boy lays disembowelled on the stable floor, and there’s nobody in the jail. No Purvis, no deputy Nick, and no doctor Samantha.
What has happened? The only clue is an arrow buried in a strut at the jail. An arrow with a head fashioned out of bone. A “civilised” Indian resident to the town – The Professor – identifies the arrow as coming from a band of cave-dwelling, inbred creatures, native to the land for sure but not acknowledged by any of the other tribes as “one of them”. The mountains in which they dwell are a five-day ride away. It’s time for Sheriff Hunt to posse up and get out there after them. He takes with him Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen), the doctors husband, naturally determined to retrieve his spouse but unfortunately carrying a nasty leg injury following a rooftop fall; John Brooder (Matthew Fox, Lost), an obnoxious but deadly – not to mention immaculately appointed – local gunfighter; and, at his own insistence, Chicory the “backup deputy”. But what are they going to find at the end of this trail?
Bone Tomahawk, the first feature from S. Craig Zahler, is high on star power and low on budget and scale. There are plenty of long shots but only of that which is completely necessary. There is a deliberate economy of movement from the cameras and there is no painting in the corners of the frame. There are no extras milling about in the backgrounds of Bright Hope. We only ever see the residents who matter to the plot and even then, they are only given enough character to fulfill their role. There is a score, composed by writer/director Zahler, but it’s used so sparingly I thought at one point that the copy I was watching had been released without the score added yet. However, far from being a negative, this spartan approach adds an eerie layer of unease to the proceedings.
The second act of the movie takes an hour of the runtime and is a stripped, no-frills four-horse road movie. They move, they set up camp, they sleep, they move on, encountering mini set-pieces along the way as is often the way with road movies. If there could’ve been some fat trimmed from this 130-minute odyssey, it probably could’ve come from here. Still, this meandering middle gives us opportunity to appreciate the poetic antique mannerisms of the dialogue, which Kurt Russell delivers as though he was actually born in 1850. He’s not alone here though; all four characters are afforded a little added depth here, and the actors all do well with the chances they get. Brooder isn’t quite as obnoxious, Chicory isn’t quite as useless, O’Dwyer isn’t just a hobbled and enraged liability, and Hunt himself… well, he isn’t quite as certain that any of them will ever see Bright Hope again.
Of course, if you’ve taken even a cursory glance at the publicity for Bone Tomahawk you’ll know that its big hook lies in its third act. For a full ninety minutes, the movie is a straight-up western, and nothing but. A pared back vague allusion to The Searchers (Ford, 1956); nowhere near as grand in its scope of course but Franklin Hunt is chasing down savages who have abducted a white girl just as Ethan Edwards did (I should add at this point that Bone Tomahawk goes to great pains to make clear that these bad guys are NOT Native Americans, oh no. They look like dusty Native American/17th century Mayan hybrids, they scalp people, and they use tomahawks and arrows; but they’re definitely NOT Native Americans, okay? OKAY?!?). But as soon as the posse reach their destination, Bone Tomahawk abandons The Searchers, abandons the western genre altogether in fact, and converts utterly to the church of Torture Porn. It’s not that this final third contains nowt but ceaseless images of severe bodily trauma because it doesn’t, but when it DOES go down that road… F*ck! I found myself wondering if it was entirely necessary to go that far that late in the proceedings, and if the movie wouldn’t have been better served had Mr. Zahler elected to present his crescendo with a little more guile and keep Bone Tomahawk planted firmly with both feet in the western genre. But the viciousness up on the screen, as initially jarring as it is, works within the context of the plot and, well, genre movies generally need a hook to distinguish themselves from the crowd and believe me, you won’t forget this one. Maybe not ever. Consider yourself warned in no uncertain terms if you’re squeamish: Bone Tomahawk takes a brief, brisk jog clear into Hostel/Martyrs/Inside territory. Not for long, but definitely for long enough.
Faults? Well it’s a subjective thing but some may find the rationed score conspicuous by its absence for long stretches; the way in which Bone Tomahawk has painted itself into a corner by wanting to return the “Red Injun” to his racist golden-era position but also shy away from its own conviction with that bit of “They’re nothing to do with us!” exposition could be considered bizarre at best and a fatal flaw at worst, if one thinks about it for long enough, which I’m not going to; and Lili Simmons in the role of Samantha O’Dwyer simply doesn’t “look” like a period character. She doesn’t.
In all though, Bone Tomahawk is a very interesting two-genre mashup. It’s not quite a “bone”-a fide classic (Ba-dum! Tish!) but it’s a good film nonetheless and comes recommended, IF you have the stomach.
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