“Bone Tomahawk” was not the best Western of 2015–that would be “The Hateful Eight”–nor was it the most disappointing Western of 2015–that would be “Slow West”–but there’s something nice about there being enough Westerns released last year that I had to choose. As it stands, 2015 must have been a good year for the genre because three out of four Westerns I saw were quite good, and “Tomahawk” was one of them.
“Bone Tomahawk” follows four men (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins) across an unforgiving landscape as they attempt to rescue a few townsfolk from an Indian tribe of shadowy cannibals–think “The Searchers” meets “The 13th Warrior.” I was hooked as soon as I heard “Kurt Russell in a Western-horror,” and it didn’t hurt that it was lauded by some of my betters on WordPress. I was a little skeptical going in because I was afraid the film would turn out to be “zombies in the West”–I had enough of that with in the cute but forgettable “zombedy” “Undead or Alive”–so I was relieved to find a far more original foe.
Girding the film are two things in particular. First is the script, which is smart and sensitive to its characters (writer-director S. Craig Zahler was a novelist before he was a filmmaker). Nobody’s backstory was really explored, but what was sketched out was just complex enough so that none of the main characters felt flat; and what really made it work was that what little backstory we were given felt completely organic. Also, the dialogue was crisp and often darkly humorous, and it avoided anachronisms–a tricky thing when one is dealing with an occasionally controversial period of history. The film does feel its two-plus hours, but there is nothing glaring to cut. Could it have used some trimming? Probably. I’d start with Jenkins (as “backup deputy” Chicory), whose moments of forehead slapping explanation were probably put in for comic effect, but if you’re like me you’ll be wishing for him to shut up.
The other thing is Kurt Russell. Russell is a Wild West vet (“Hateful Eight” this year and a little film called “Tombstone” a bit before that), and if there is any actor alive who looks like the West, it is he. As Sheriff Hunt, Russell has all the appearance of the frontier both nobly romanticized and rendered grittily real, and he moves through the film like weary inevitability. The supporting cast is rather interesting as well: Sean Young (“Blade Runner”), Fred Melamed (“A Serious Man”), an underused David Arquette (the Scream franchise) and Sig Haig (if I have to tell you a horror movie Sig Haig’s been in, you need to watch more horror movies).
“Tomahawk’s” flaws are, unfortunately, fairly obvious. The movie looks like it was shot on cheap equipment, and the photography is not quite imaginative enough to distract me from that. Not to mention the fact that the screen shakes at some inopportune moments. Here’s a tip indie filmmakers: If you can’t afford a top-of-the-line camera, get a really solid tripod, and then just don’t touch it while you’re shooting. Further setbacks are the less than effective makeup and the poorly shot action scenes, both of which are kept to a minimum, but the film could have used a director more familiar with blocking fights.
In another way the film looks fine. The John Ford trick still works–if you photograph pretty countryside with an ounce of vision, you’ll do OK. And special mention must be made of the costumes, which are impressively authentic. Modern cowboy hats and off-the-rack denim are nowhere to be seen, and bowlers are as common dust.
“Bone Tomahawk” is overlong and underfunded, but it’s still a good film. It is a Western first and a thriller second because its themes are Western themes: honor, duty and the paradox of civilization–keeping the peace through violence. Which is not to warn off horror fans. There are some tense moments in the frontier darkness, and there’s a human vivisection, which is always fun. The film probably fits most comfortably in the “weird Western” genre. The cannibals might be supernatural in origin, or they might be just…well, weird. Either way, it works.