Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkeit, David Arquette, Zahn McClarnon
Running time: 132mins
What’s the story: In the small western town of Bright Hope, a brutal mountain tribe abduct the man who desecrated their burial ground and the town’s female doctor. Four men, including the Sheriff and the doctor’s husband, hit the trail to rescue them.
What’s the verdict: The Western sure is one versatile genre, and Kurt Russell a versatile actor within it.
Hot off the back of The Hateful Eight (in the UK at least), he’s back with another expansive, violent oater. But, where Tarantino’s movie revelled in pomp and theatricality, writer/director S. Craig Zahler delivers a sombre, stripped back tale of revenge and retribution, with Russell in less flamboyant, more intense mode.
Best described as The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes, Bone Tomahawk is a confident genre hybrid, as good at dishing out dismemberment and scalpings as it is providing the seasoned cast with meaty dialogue on which to chew.
Opening with a savage throat cutting, Zahler wastes no time in establishing this land as lawless and deadly. The unassuming town of Bright Hope is a literal oasis in the desert, marked by well-kept houses, a quiet air of respectability (even the subdued tavern is named The Learned Goat) and an eloquence of speech as self-consciously refined as it is a joy to listen to. Here men are not hung, but rather “go purple on the rope.”
Like a less rambunctious Deadwood, order in Bright Hope is maintained by Sheriff Hunt (Russell) and his deputies, including old timer Chicory (Jenkins). So, when “troglodytes” from the mountains steal into town and abduct a varmint (Arquette), the deputy (Jonigkeit) and the town doctor Mrs O’Dwyer (Simmons), Hunt, Chicory and the broken-legged Mr O’Dwyer (Wilson) give chase.
They are joined by flint-eyed, dandy gunslinger Mr Brooder (Fox), lethal with a pistol and armed with personal reasons for joining the search.
Whereas The Hateful Eight charged headlong into discussions of racism, Bone Tomahawk lets the topic lay as subtext. A local Native American tracker (McClarnon) emphatically states the (fictitious) tribe should not be considered Indian, but are a prehistoric throwback without a name or language.
With villains dwelling within the mountains, Zahler could be mining the same “repressed id” gold that Wes Craven did with The Hills Have Eyes, or the tribe could be seen as the embodiment of America’s blood guilt in “taming” the land.
Or, in these post Iraq times, it is tempting to read the story of kill-happy, ignorant Americans desecrating sacred land and being hunted by chop-happy locals as an allegory for the Middle East. All wrapped up in the USA’s most treasured icon: the cowboy.
Whatever the meanings, the tribe are memorably fearsome bad guys with methods of harvesting food straight out of the 70s grindhouse.
Not that Zahler (who penned the wonderfully named Western novel A Congregation of Jackals) allows his quartet of horsemen an easy ride to the showdown. No-one is to be trusted on this wide open range, and plenty of life-threatening incident befall the four and ensure O’Dwyer’s broken leg is given no respite.
Shooting digitally, but with an eye for stark, disquieting compositions, played with blunt survivalism by the note-perfect cast, and scored with ominous dread by Zahler and Jeff Herriott, Bone Tomahawk is defiantly unusual and unpredictable.
And although likely to be overshadowed in 2016 by its Tarantino-directed cousin, and definitely by its kissing cousin The Revenant, it is highly recommended as a fine, fierce film.