This review originally ran during our coverage of Fantastic Fest 2015.
If you’re waiting patiently for Kurt Russell to suit-up as an old-west cowboy in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, another movie MIGHT be able to hold you over in the meantime – S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. It’s a lean, mean story about cannibalism in the old west, but don’t expect a frontier version of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Zahler’s film is a slow build, spending much of the 133 minute runtime as a dusty buddy team-up picture, but when flesh-hungry savages present themselves, there’s no skimping on tasty gore. Bloody limbs and boney weaponry litter the desert floor thanks to Zahler’s chaos, but your enjoyment of Bone Tomahawk will depend heavily on your love of westerns. Long, isolated, middle-of-nowhere westerns.
Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a local lawman who leads a rescue team after two of the town’s citizens are kidnapped by Indians. He’s joined by the backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), an experienced gunslinger named John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), husband to one of the abductees, but their experiences still may not be enough to defeat the tribe of savage troglodyte natives. Facing off against adversaries who are ruthless enough to rape and eat their own mothers, Sheriff Hunt keeps his men moving with the hope that Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) and his deputy haven’t already been turn into meals. There’s no promise that their mission will be a success, but they press on anyway, ready for the battle that lies ahead.
Zahler sets out to make a western picture, first and foremost, which is the majority of Bone Tomahawk. Hell, even when the film’s climactic stand-off begins, Zahler still ensures that period drama is left in the frenzy of flying tomahawks and whizzing bullets. These Indians may be primal monsters, but they’re just a bizarre product of the times – not horror movie villains. That’s something genre fans should think about before showing excitement at the mention of cannibalism. Zahler moseys on towards the real action while barely reaching a trot, spending more time on witty banter between his cowboy heroes. It’s a long, arduous trail these boys wander down, filled with scenic mountain ranges and cozy little camp sites that are sure to test the patience of more adrenaline-seeking viewers. It’s a western through and through, taking its sweet-ass time to begin the tomahawking.
Once the action sets in, Zahler’s team cranks the proverbial dial to eleven and turns this meandering western into an all-out visual feast. Patience is required to access the bouts of cannibalistic brutality that await, but those who hold strong will be awarded for their willingness to stay. Zahler’s SFX magicians split entire bodies down the middle with ease, and ensure that tomahawk wounds are not just mere cuts, but severing blows that leave appendages behind with a single strike. I know I said Bone Tomahawk is no The Green Inferno, based on how much of the script is only western banter, but for the twenty-odd minutes of cannibalistic carnage, Zahler calls upon Eli Roth’s ability to shock us with righteous, squeamishly-detailed gore. Mix that with Kurt Russell’s mustachioed badassery, and you’ve got a western hybrid that bites back, HARD.
While most of the cast works better alone, like Matthew Fox’s take on a cocky, intelligent playboy who’s killed over 100 Indians and doesn’t let anyone forget it, there’s no better chemistry than that between Russell and Richard Jenkins. Russell is the leader, and Jenkins is his bumbling sidekick – your average teacher/student relationship built on bonded friendship. Jenkins always has a cheerful anecdote, as insane as they may be (the flea circus story), and he’s always good for a laugh whenever Russell spouts something serious. They’re the unlikely duo who form a lovable, underestimated team, but their strong connection is crucial as the film trudges on through the desert, in scene after scene of campfire conversations.
Bone Tomahawk is a movie that could have done with a good twenty minutes of fat being trimmed, particularly during a daunting second act, but true westerns run the same course. The journeys is always long, as characters traverse open, lawless lands that are chock-full of ways to die, so it’s going to take a while to get anywhere meaningful.
Zahler’s film is no different, but between John Brooder’s quick decision making, Chicory’s innocent comedy, and a brutal bonestorm of cannibalistic chaos, there’s enough to make this otherwise plodding western a palatable affair, depending on your taste. You’ll certainly feel the film’s length, and then hopefully forget about any grumblings once the first tomahawk-chop instigates a Cowboys vs. Indians war that’d make Eli Roth blush – a basic forgiveness of sins in the bloodiest of ways.
Unfortunately, that’s not my take, as I found nothing but tumbleweed-blowing boredom and misfired jokes on Jenkins’ part for far too long, which is a shame, because Act 3 is a real powder-keg. A western doesn’t always HAVE to be long, and a little more restraint could have saved Bone Tomahawk from a middling adventure that’s mostly dead weight. Let’s just say there’s a reason why I only wrote half a page of notes for one of my longest endeavors at Fantastic Fest.
Bone Tomahawk is a long, LONG journey towards cannibalistic mayhem, which will test the patience of western fans waiting for the gruesome tomahawking to begin.