Bone Tomahawk is a first for me and pretty much anyone else who has seen it. Its a first because there isn’t a film quite like it that exists, anywhere, which is a very impressive feat for first time director S. Craig Zahler, this genre defying mash-up is not only my biggest surprise of 2015, but its also my favorite film of 2015.
Bone Tomahawk follows the story of four men as they attempt to rescue the local doctor of the town (who is also the wife of one of them) and deputy sheriff from local savages who have abducted them. Did I mention its a Western? Oh and a horror? and a whole load of other things, but mainly a Horror Western. Didn’t think you’d seen one of those did you? Neither did I.
This mixing of film genres is something I never thought I needed, part of the triumph here is the two genres are melded together so organically. Director Zahler has done a really great job here, he manages to create the atmosphere and beauty of old, classic westerns, while putting his own, horrific spin on it. This is evident right from the opening scene wherein a mans throat is violently cut open by robbers, it sets the tone of Zahlers West with startling effect and provides a great introduction for whats to come.
Through that introductory scene, everything is established, frontier life in the Old West, survival of the fittest, the beautiful landscape the film inhabits and might I add, the dry, sarcastic and hilarious dialogue.
As I mentioned before this is the brain child of Zahler who manages to simultaneously, Direct, write and take on shared soundtrack (which is really beautiful and understated) duties with real confidence. The producers of the film have spoken about how they loved the script so much and wanted to give Zahler as much creative control as possible, its really exciting to see a first time director take this challenge on and to watch their creativeness flow on screen without interference.
So, how do all the individual elements add up on screen? Well lets start with direction.
Its fair to say that for a Western, Zahler is working on a limited budget here, with a mere $1.8 million dollars to work with and having a meager 21 days to shoot. Its a small budget when compared to the usual grand old Hollywood westerns. Zahler makes it work with ease here though, filmed just outside Los Angeles on a ranch, he employs clever camera angles to make the most of the landscape but also has some gorgeous shots, capturing the epic feeling and journey our protagonists are on.
Zahlers direction with actors is fascinatingly efficient here, the films four leads are all experienced actors in their own right and it must of been intimidating for Zahler to work on set for the first time and have to give directions to an acting legend like Kurt Russell. Its made to look easy though, and Zahler manages to get brilliantly nuanced performances out of his actors which elevates this film to another level. He adds little details and small physical performances from the actors that help nourish the film into a well thought character study, another string to the films bow.
Zahler is also the films sole writing credit and produces a really good script here, the dialogue feels authentic enough and helps settle you into the time and place. Along with being genuine the film clearly establishes characters, which is lovely to see because every characters dialogue and interactions are different, this can sometimes be difficult to manage in an ensemble film and quite a few directors, even great ones (Tarantino) is guilty of making most of his characters speak the same. Last but by no means the least is that the dialogue is really funny, its not obvious and loud but instead dry and caustic, every-time I re-watch the film I catch a little jab from one character to another that I missed before.
On cinematography duties here we have Benji Bakshi, not a well known DP but he helps capture the atmosphere of the violent and lonesome West really well. Similarly to The Road, which i reviewed previously, the characters are absorbed in the landscape, with large swathes of land set out in front of them which emphasises the immense task the characters have taken on. The shots of the different trophies and warning signs (which I have used as the featured image for this review) that surround the antagonists caves are effectively intimidating and create a mystery and violence that our characters are unprepared for.
This leads me nicely to talk about the adversaries in our story. I normally wouldn’t want to spoil or dedicate a whole paragraph to talking about an “enemy” in a film, especially when it isn’t played by one particular actor whose performance I can focus on, but Bone Tomahawk deserves special treatment here.
When the town of Bright Hope where our characters reside is attacked in the night, we wake up to the aftermath, the local stable boy has been brutally slaughtered and the towns doctor, along with the deputy sheriff and a local brigand have been captured. The local professor (portrayed here by Zahn McClarnon in an efficient albeit small role), who is also an native American Indian, is requested to implore any knowledge he has on the attackers, its in this scene that we realise our characters are in for a turbulent time.
While we have witnessed how efficient they are at killing already, its this scene that brings everything together and really makes us fear for the characters. The professor establishes that these are not men nor Native Americans, they are a “spoilt bloodline of inbred animals who rape and eat their own mothers” “troglodytes” as he refers to them. Its an arresting statement and recalls other films in a similar vein like the Hills Have Eyes… and we all know how that turned out. We as an audience are intimidated by this information and naturally you turn to Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Hunt to provide us with a reassuring presence, he asks how many troglodytes they are dealing with “It wont matter, you have no chance against any number of them” The Professor replies. So, we`re all screwed then. I love this feeling of helplessness that the enemy inflicts on these men, its so threatening and daunting. One thing these savages don’t account for though is the sheer determination our protagonists posses.
One of the major themes within the script is Men working together and their egos. They are all working toward a common goal but also have some conflicting personalities, its great to see play-out on screen and the whole cast have a great chemistry, however once the horror and action starts these men really have to band together and its here where the sheer grit and determination of them is really felt.
The leader of these men is Sheriff Hunt played by Kurt Russell (rocking some truly amazing facial hair), Kurt Russell is the epitome of cool, he possesses fantastic charisma and is always watchable, hes one of those classic american actors who just looks great onscreen. Patrick Wilson spoke about how one of the geniuses of Zahlers writing is that he manage to take stereotypes and subvert them. This is evident in Hunt, naturally as an audience we depend on not only Russell as an actor but also the Sheriff archetype in film, here while Hunt is stalwart, brave and confident, he is also vastly out of his depth with the enemy that he faces. For my money, Russell gives an understated and brilliant performance here, I recently retweeted a post about alternative performances in 2015 that went unrecognized and one of the actors featured was Kurt Russell, I stand by that and unfortunately his performance was overlooked when it came to major awards ceremonies, although he did get nominated for minor ones and even won Best Actor at the Chainsaw Awards.
Playing Arthur O`dwyer we have Patrick Wilson, he has suffered a leg injury climbing a roof and is on crutches, however his wife is one of the victims of the abduction and he will stop at nothing to get her back. Wilson shines in this role, he delivers a really great physical performance trying desperately to keep up with the other men while suffering from his ailments, but also lending an absolute righteous fury to the character. He is an unstoppable force who loves his wife deeply “She is, my whole, everything”. Wilson unfortunately again was overlooked for awards and its a shame because he easily matches Russell in this film.
Playing opposite Wilson is Lili Simmons who plays Arthur’s very sassy and beautiful wife, Samantha. Samantha is another stereotype that is turned somewhat on its head, she could comfortably become another Damsel in distress, but instead she is a respected doctor and holds a position of power in the community of Bright Hope. Samantha is witty and smart, she is an equal to Arthur and their relationship is loving and humorous, perfectly demonstrated in an early sex scene featuring the two of them.
Playing the Sheriffs back up deputy going by the name of chicory is Richard Jenkins, he is BRILLIANT in this role, the most senior man of the four, but also the most childish he provides a lot of the comedic relief in the film. In a small but amusing scene, he is questioned by the mayors wife why he didn’t fetch the mayor as soon as he learnt about the assault on Bright Hope “The Sheriff told me to get him, but I’m old and I forgot” is his response. Again the humor isn’t flamboyant or over the top but has this dry straightness to it.
Finally we have Matthew fox (matching Russell in both performance and facial hair department) playing Brooder, the towns resident hottie and flirt, as he says “Many women invite me over for dessert” and is even warned by Arthur not to make any “flirtatious remarks” toward his wife. I have saved Fox till last because he surprised me the most, interestingly Zahler states in the Making of Featurette that this is a “Matthew Fox, we’ve never seen before” my exposure to him is through Lost which I thought he was strong in and here is no different, but again hes playing against type. Brooder is a suave sophisticated man (sporting some really cool cream and white suits) and also, to his own acknowledgement, is the most intelligent man of the group, unfortunately he is also obnoxious and rude. He also harbors a dark past, when he joins the men on their adventure he states he has killed 116 Indians, to which they think he is boasting “not a boast, but a fact” correcting them and the reason he has done so provides Fox with some good emotional material to work with. Like all the other characters Brooder is a well written three dimensional character brought to life by Fox, a man who is leading dual lives, being a ladies man around Bright Hope but in his personal time, living with ghosts.
Its so much fun to see the different themes and genres that are at play in this film and its exceptional to see a Western turned on its head. Speaking of stereotypes and expectations being averted, I like how the stable boy Buford is treated with respect upon his death (getting a proper burial) and for the Native American Indian to be a man of intelligence who the town of Bright Hope respect. Bone Tomahawk is a truly inspired piece of film, The atmosphere is intoxicating and you quickly get sucked into the world (I forgot I should be taking notes for a good thirty minutes). I would recommend not going into this film as a typical horror, it has a slow burn pace that will not appeal to fans of more mainstream horror such as Paranormal Activity and the violence here is very visceral and real, it comes quickly and ferociously. The production use some extraordinary practical effects, especially in the films most violent sequence which is pretty damn shocking and certainly unforgettable. Every-time I re-watch this film I get a sense of inescapable dread and fear for the characters because I like them so much, it makes the violence that much more shocking,
There are two versions of the film that are available: The normal, Blu-ray edition (in a nice brown might I add) and then an awesome steelbook from Zavvi, I own this and its definitely one of my favorites, the artwork on the front captures the tone of the film and looks great with its gold/brown metallic colours. There also a featurette included on the Blu rays as extras which have the cast lovingly talk about the film, its really inspiring to see the cast discuss the film with such passion and to see them working for the love of film-making rather than the money. you can pick these editions up here: