Fittingly enough, watching Bone Tomahawk feels a bit like getting whacked upside the head by a heavy implement, leaving you dizzy, disoriented, and just a little bit nauseous.
Kurt Russell is on his typical grizzled, grouchy form as the Sheriff of the quiet frontiers town of Bright Hope. When a drifter brings along unwelcome attention from a nearby tribe of Native Americans, he and a ragtag group find themselves off on a mission to rescue a Deputy and a nurse caught up in the attack.
It’s a pretty barebones plot, but purposefully so, making way for the character work and horror that will come to define the film. You see, this is a horror western. Not in the cowboys vs. vampires sense, but more the ‘Oh god, what did they just do to his internal organs?’ sense. You see, these aren’t just any old Native Americans – they’re a savage, pre-linguistic group, referred to only as ‘troglodytes’.
It’s an approach to racial diversity fit for 2016: we’ll still get the ethnic minority as the baddies, we’ll just make it clear that not all of them are baddies. Bone Tomahawk even goes out of its way to introduce one friendly Native American in the town – and we know he’s good and proper and civilised, because he’s wearing a three-piece suit.
Still, if you can move past the oft-uncomfortable racial undertones, the troglodytes make for utterly superb foes. Mud-caked and half-naked, implanted with animal tusks and bones, they’re a startling presence at the best of times, leaping out with a genuinely inhuman, guttural shriek. As for what they do with their unfortunate prisoners, the less said the better – just don’t plan on eating any big meals immediately afterwards.
Before it gets there though, Bone Tomahawk is content to settle in for the long ride with its motley cast. Kurt Russell gets top billing, but offers few surprises. More impressive are Matthew Fox as a slick local big shot and Patrick Wilson as a cowboy nursing a broken leg and a commitment to rescuing his wife.
It’s Richard Jenkins that’s really captivating though, as befuddled elderly ‘back-up Deputy’ Chicory. He brings a warmth and innocence to the role that sees the audience willing him to make it through the film, a fundamentally good spirit unbroken by decades of life on the harsh frontiers. Jenkins is almost unrecognisable below Chicory’s crooked grin and weary shuffle, taking what might have been a throwaway part and making the movie his own.
It’s a credit to first-time director S. Craig Zahler that he trusts his script and cast enough to leave them breathing room, devoting the bulk of the film to their slow trudge across the desert, slowly peeling back layers of character beneath the burning desert sun. When the violence does arrive, with a whistling arrow and a wet thud, this slow burn pays off, guaranteeing emotional heft for the challenging final scenes.
“Ain’t no concern of a civilised man,” intones early on. It’s never quite clear just how civilised the men of Bone Tomahawk really are, but the film itself is no brute. It’s all too aware of how to make the most of the base pleasures (and horrors), but there’s a subtlety and restraint here that makes it all the more effective when Zahler finally lets loose the reins and unleashes the bloodbath.
Words by Dominic Preston