Release Date: October 23rd, 2015 (US); February 19th, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Drama; Horror
Starring: Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins
Bone Tomahawk is an audible treat. Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has a movie sounded so raw and striking (Sicario might warrant a shout, in fairness). During the opening segment here, in which a pair of drifters execute a travelling party before stumbling upon an eerie burial ground, we learn about the 16 major veins that exist inside the human neck. “And you have to cut through ’em all,” claims scavenger Buddy (Sid Haig). David Arquette’s Purvis obliges and we hear every squeak, twist, and snap as he does so. It is cringe-inducing for all the right reasons and the perfect introduction to S. Craig Zahler’s unforgiving picture, a western thoroughly bludgeoned by despair and horror.
Sometime thereafter, Purvis turns up looking a bit worse for wear in Bright Hope, a small town with a population of 268 according to its welcome signpost. He runs into sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and earns a bullet in the leg, the first of many indications that Hunt favours blunt practicality over weak-mindedness. And so begins the sequence of events which send the sheriff, his well-meaning deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the egotistical John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) on a mission to rescue the latter’s kidnapped wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons).
Foreshadowing and foreboding are wilfully employed by Zahler — replacing what could have been a more natural music-driven score, the howls of wolves (or worse) ominously serenade events early on and then manifest in threatening form later. It’s the ambiance of the west, or at least this incarnation of the west. “Oh boy, that smells good now that I know it’s not supposed to be tea,” Chicory muses, referring to corn chowder but also reflecting the film’s underbelly. See, though there are plenty of traditional western strands at play — the gruff sheriff who commands authority, the isolated community tormented by threat, plenty of horses — Bone Tomahawk sets its stall out with a difference.
Slowly paced scenes reflect the slower time period, when face-to-face interactions dominated and long distance journeys relied on animal willpower. Russell taps into this considered approach, employing words with authority; patience really is a virtue and in Hunt’s presence you get the sense patience will be rewarded. Comparisons with The Hateful Eight’s John Ruth are inevitable, though the pair have less in common than you might think. Composure, for one: Hunt’s detective-esque apprehension of Purvis is the product of gradual interrogation, whereas Ruth’s treatment of Daisy Domergue is often abrasive and erratic. It is a testament to the actor that he has managed to create such varied yet equally compelling characters from two very similar seeds.
The version of the 1890s we see on-screen is one characterised by manual labour. O’Dwyer is a worker, though his involvement in the job has been tempered by a nasty leg injury that continues to plague him during the group’s arduous trek. Wilson does his utmost to sell his character’s ongoing pain in a performance that values physicality over emotional depth, though that is not to say O’Dwyer is a bland protagonist. Quite the opposite, in fact: the persistence of his injury only serves to bolster his heroic tendencies, to the point that we believe in him as a viable saviour and not just a tag-along husband.
Such ponderous momentum affords these characters natural breathing space, and Fox’s Brooder benefits too. Brooder is perhaps the most intriguing of the main quartet, certainly the most mysterious — the camera often shows him isolated from his fellow pack. One moment he inspires anti-heroic Han Solo connotations, the next plain ignorance, and then there’s his penchant for wry humour: “I’ll probably beat you to the draw,” Brooder boasts before amusingly justifying said boast. This is the best Matthew Fox has been in years. It is also one of Richard Jenkins’ most endearing showings, a real triumph given the overarching strand of impersonal cruelty.
Zahler’s film takes up a somewhat conventional western face for much of its running time, though said face is masked by an uneasy mist. It would be best to avoid specific details, but I will note that proceedings take a turn for the sickeningly gory and genuinely unsettling. This genre mishmash works because terror and anxiety have always been woven into the genre. The mishmash refrains from stopping at abject fear too. This is also a film about how men are impacted by separation (O’Dwyer’s wife is missing, Hunt’s is worried at home, and Chicory’s deceased). As the group traverse further from civilisation and closer to potential doom, the score unveils a pained melancholy, manifesting almost as a sort of death soliloquy.
On a technical front, Bone Tomahawk is infallible. I’ve already lauded the sound quality and the production team maintain a similar level of excellence in their set creation and landscape scouting. It feels like the end of the 19th century; that retro gunslinging allure in full effect. We ride across mossy vistas and tiptoe through ghost valleys that bear some resemblance to those in The Return of the King. Presumably working with a low budget, those behind the lens have smartly utilised nature’s virtues and rustled up quite the canvass for exploration, fusing the harsh brutalities of No Country For Old Men with the pilgrimage proclivities of Slow West.
All of the elements are furnished to oaky perfection but you could remove the lot — the charcoal landscapes, the wooden interiors, the deceptive humour — to leave just the four central characters, and you would still have something well worth two hours of your time. These marauders are wacky and layered. Zahler sticks to his guns even after the craziness takes off, winningly heralding the richness of his protagonists over shock value. A late, brief exchange between sheriff and deputy recalls the film’s intimate, considered mantra. In one moment, Bone Tomahawk cements its status as a future classic.
Images copyright (©): RLJ Entertainment