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Bone Tomahawk; a simple story well executed. The film combines gripping direction, a sparse and grounded use of violence, strong characters, and brilliant performances to concoct its own distinct style of slow boiled western horror.
Staggering into town, a hapless brigand brings the wraith of a savage troglodyte tribe down on the inhabitants of Bright Hope. Having abducted two members of the backwater town and the hapless criminal, a sheriff, deputy, cowboy, and husband of the abducted set out to bring back their own and revenge themselves on the predatory barbarians.
Director S. Craig Zahler doesn’t rush his story, allowing the characters to unfold in their own good time. Bright Hope is populated by superbly realised secondary personalities (a drunken piano-man, the outspoken wife of the mayor) and these characters, while superfluous to the plot, establish the weight of civilisation, the richness of individuality which can grow there, and the emotional grounding of the film. The relationship between husband and wife, played by Patrick Wilson and Lili Simmons, is central to this, and Zahler lingers on scenes between the two, explicitly presenting the strength of their love and commitment so that the motives for the rescue, in particular for Arthur the injured husband, are apparently natural to the audience. We’re dealing with a town full of well realised characters who care for and about each other and the plot, as the best ones usually are, is driven by these characters.
The films ticks along like a well-tended time piece with a quiet and steady intensity making excellent use of muted violence and gore that is gnarly but mesmerising. Bodily gore subtly permeates throughout, from the rough opening shot of a throat being hewn open to the ever present phantom of infection that festers in Arthurs injured leg. Further full frontal savagery is included to great effect later on in the film. Building the frontier world outside of Bright Hope, the four horsemen are under constant threat not just from the savage tribe they’re trailing but from marauding Mexican bandits and the harsh conditions of the untamed American west. Again Zahler shows his strength in helping to make the world of the film feel far larger outside of the story we’re being presented. The cowboys here are skittish, not cocksure, and apart from a quick draw, a level head is shown to be the most useful tool in combating the keen jeopardy which lurks in the darkness beyond the light of the campfire.
Within the central journey of the film Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins all come into their own exhibiting their keen acting abilities. Fox is of note playing his slick sharpshooter as reserved, cool, and coy but undoubtedly Jenkins is the scene stealing best bringing a sense of warmth and humour to the somewhat bleak prospects of the riders through his brilliant comedic sensibility. While never ridding the film entirely of the menaces which lurk beyond shot, Zahler makes great use of western genre tropes to help viewers feel the familiar leather of the saddle under them as they journey towards the savage Indians and this is no doubt spurred on by the strength of performances from the four leading actors. Yee-haw. Once arrived at the destination, however, the film takes a horrific and terrifying turn.
Undoubtedly the films climax is the most violent, gory, and horror influenced portion of the film and thanks to keen and strong direction and the strength of the script it doesn’t disappoint or feel tonally unfamiliar. I’d say that some of the best dialogue of the film comes towards the conclusion while the true mettle of some of the characters is also revealed.
Interestingly enough, within the film, the importance of the graveyard to both the frontiersman and the Native American helps to create a tacit rationality for the savagery which ensues as a result of its defilement. At no point are you supposed to be, or do you ever, root for the Indians but it illustrates a sensitivity to the subject matter and also shows a particular strength of genre fiction, in this case horror films, to seamlessly lay a commentary silently into the events of the film. In the case of Bone Tomahawk the representation of the monstrous can tell us about what we value as acceptable behaviour in our society and what is acceptable within the film industry. The Indians are desperately violent cannibals, which isn’t anything new in terms of their negative and one dimensional representation within film, but interestingly they’re also entirely speechless in this particular iteration. While a Native American character does qualify the existence and location of the savage tribe there is no voice within that tribe, in a similar manner as to how there are few if any Native American voices within the cinematic western cannon, to speak on behalf of themselves. With The Revenant, which features Native American characters, well and truly geared up to clean house at the most prestigious awards ceremony of the industry, this representation of Native Americans on screen is indeed food for thought.
For the cinephile and genre junkie alike, Bone Tomahawk is a gripping ride into the savage side of the wild wild West.
Bone Tomahawk is in cinemas on Friday February 19th. Check out the trailer below.
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