Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Directed and written by S. Craig Zahler
Produced by Iain Abrahams, Jonathan Feuer, and twelve more
Cinematography by Benji Bakshi
Editing by Greg D’Auria, Fred Raskin
Music by Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler
Costumes by Chantal Filson
Caliber Media Company
(Amazon streaming; 2:13)
In discussing Johnny Guitar a few weeks ago, I mentioned that when the film was released in 1954, Westerns were already in a steady decline. At one time, Westerns reigned supreme in American movie theaters (and later on television). In 1952, 80 Western movies were produced in America. In 1953 that number slipped to 72 and in 1954 plunged to 52. We’ve seen Westerns make small comebacks over the decades since then, but – the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding – Westerns are pretty rare. If my research is accurate, only 12 Westerns were released in the U.S. in 2015. One of those is Bone Tomahawk, a Western far too many people haven’t seen, but should.
Kurt Russell (above center wearing a hat) plays Franklin Hunt, sheriff of the frontier town of Bright Hope, a place that actually offers little hope. Although we get the impression that Hunt is a very capable lawman, crime continues, as do whispers and murmurings of a deadly tribe of savages. This is the frontier, after all, and with frontier comes suspicion of newcomers.
One of those newcomers – a man named “Buddy” (David Arquette) gets himself into an altercation with Sheriff Hunt, and ends up injured. Hunt calls in the local doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons, above left), who treats Buddy and offers to keep an eye on his fever, much to the disapproval of Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson, above right) who is at home recovering from an injured leg.
This really isn’t much of a spoiler, since it’s central to the rest of the plot, but that evening, Samantha and Buddy are captured by the aforementioned group of savages. Sheriff Hunt and his aging Deputy Sheriff Chicory (Richard Jenkins, below right, squatting) decide to form a rescue party. A traveler named John Brooder (Matthew Fox, below right, in background) who claims to have killed several Indians singlehanded, joins up. Arthur O’Dwyer also insists on being a part of his wife’s rescue, although the other three men know he’s in no condition to do so.
Much of Bone Tomahawk consists of the journey of these four men to rescue Samantha. At 132 minutes, is the journey too long? Yes and no. After awhile, you begin to think there won’t be a payoff (but there is), then you realize that part of what makes the journey so compelling is the way we get to know these characters and the stellar performances of the actors playing them.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Matthew Fox, but his Brooder is a man who is arrogant, smart, and resourceful. You’re never sure if you’d like to shake his hand or punch his face, yet Fox plays him convincingly. Richard Jenkins is always stellar, which he certainly is here. His Chicory falls somewhere between the typical bumbling deputy and man you can trust with your life, even though you fear he may never stop talking. I’ve seen few of Patrick Wilson’s films, but his work here is solid. And what can you say about Kurt Russell? He’s so believable as Sheriff Hunt, you’d think he’d been born to the job and held onto it for decades.
Cinematographer Benji Bakshi’s landscapes are stunningly gorgeous as are his camera placement decisions. We think we know, based on the composition of the scene, what’s going to happen and we’re frequently wrong (in a good way). Along with the dialogue (written by S. Craig Zahler, who has also written Western novels), the look of the film feels authentic without ever calling attention to itself, a rarity in films attempting to separate themselves from the pack. Yet the film also distinguishes itself in how it handles violence.
The violent acts are never there simply for violence’s sake. They have a purpose beyond that of getting our attention (which they certainly do). Sometimes violence is the result of some really bad decisions. I won’t tell you who says this in the film, or when it is said, but one character states, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.” Whether or not as the result of idiocy, the film contains one scene of violence that is the most brutal, disturbing, and disgusting onscreen killing I’ve ever seen. You’ve been warned.
The underlying theme of so many Westerns is that of right and wrong, justice, a moral standard that must be upheld. On the other side of that is the point-of-view of those whose land has been invaded by the white man. On both sides there’s honor, courage, dignity, and determination. Although it doesn’t dwell on these themes, Bone Tomahawk certainly lays them on the table for us to dwell on.
Film critic Leonard Maltin says of Bone Tomahawk, “(T)his modest feature leaves The Hateful Eight in the dust. It’s provocative, original, extremely violent and extremely good.” I haven’t seen The Hateful Eight, but Bone Tomahawk is an impressive film, especially from a first-time director. It successfully blends several genres, particularly Western and horror, but it also contains elements of humor (although it is certainly not a comedy) and the supernatural. You could easily make a case for this not being a Western, but a horror movie in the guise of a Western.
If you have a strong stomach, I highly recommend Bone Tomahawk. You can see it on Amazon Prime Video for free or catch it on DVD or Blu-ray.