Bone Tomahawk – a review



Kurt Russell, Sheriff of Bright Hope

A weird movie

This film is a real oddity. I guess Hollywood has grown bored with the standard cowboy plot and let its imagination run wild.

What is it about American, and for that matter Japanese, cultures, that they so enjoy torture? Their films are full of pain as an aid to sexual union, and agonising, prolonged bloody deaths, usually involving some half-naked girl at the end of a knife.

Even normal rated action films kill their villains at least three times. He gets shot, (once) staggers back through a glass window (twice) on the 20th floor, falls eighty feet (thrice) smashing  through a stained glass entrance canopy below, (fourth) and then gets impaled on some spiky statue in the hotel foyer, (fifth). Death is one long tortuous journey. Sometimes death is dressed up as zombies, poor souls lost in limbo with only a juicy leg to chomp for sustenance, if only they can catch one. Zombies are surely the most boring genre of all the horror films, speechless, shuffling, dead-heads.

Life and guns are cheap

I just about fathom Americans. I know their cruelty is a manifestation of their ‘life is cheap’ creed, a gun owner mentality, forever warpath alert. This film seems to embody that lifestyle. Guess what? Bone Tomahawk is a horror western with slasher attitude, and zombie-like ashen faced characters, body caked in flour, that can actually run and fire a bow and arrow. It’s grim, witty, intelligent, and gruesome, all in one go.

The title is taken from one of the weapons used, a horse’s jawbone.

Just when you wait ages for a good western four come along at once: our own John McLean’s Slow West, Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, and Iñáritto’s The Revenant, and now this one, only it’s a real oddball.

This one is a slice of  The Searchers – a posse go in search of a woman abducted by ‘Indian savages’, and like Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, with some touches of The Hills Have Eyes (based on Scotland’s Sawney Bean).


Following the western’s conventions – a posse

A cowboy revenge movie, the next a vampire horror.

A word of warning, there’s a truly gruesome scalping cum-disembowelment scene at the three-quarter mark, extremely difficult to watch. Graphic is an understatement. The hundred-seat auditorium I was in was empty but for one guy at the back and me. As the lights came up I said, “Heck, it’s not a movie to take the girlfriend or wife.” “No”, he chuckled, putting on his jacket. “I wondered why the place was empty.”

The oddest things is, with the exception of some shaky camera work near the start, it’s a gripping story, well acted by all, and a very mature, smart screenplay. It has a penchant for lengthy conversational meanderings in the Tarantino tradition, yet it offers us genuinely fascinating characters. You think it’s a ninety-minute horror flick but it’s actually a two hour western.

A band of mysterious tribal people descends one dark night on the frontier town Bright Hope, killing a stable boy, grabbing the horses, and kidnapping the sheriff’s deputy and the pretty wife (Lili Simmons). She’s the wife of cowboy O’Dwyer, played by Patrick Wilson, with a gammy leg from start to finish, and a crutch under one oxter except when crawling along the dry ground through scrub, which is a lot of the time. Well, the savages know what hard working goodies to take, the horses and the woman.


Savages around every rock

Savages everywhere

And savages they are. They can’t speak, but instead have evolved an extra breast bone with a hole in it that allows them to holler like a steam locomotive crossing the plains. The chief among them has hog tusks. Dental care must be a nightmare for the tribe.

Despite convalescing from a broken leg, O’Dwyer joins a posse consisting of the town’s aging, grizzled sheriff, (Kurt Russell), plying his usual gruff, easy-going persona, a condescending but smart, puckish gunslinger, (Matthew Fox) and the most exhausted deputy in the Western territories, played by a very funny Richard Jenkins, barely recognizable in grey hair, beard and spectacles.

Jenkins is constantly barging into scenes half-tripping, memory going fast, slumping against walls and horses, his every weary line spoken like a deathbed oration. But all that makes him interesting. They’re all interesting, the actors committing to the script.

The inconsistent in choice of roles, David Arquette, makes an appearance but is bumped off early in the proceedings. Watch his smile carefully, his teeth go back and forth from rotten and black to normal and white. Inconsistently. I digress.

Old western homilies and sensibilities

Writer and director is  S. Craig Zahler, (the ‘S’ as mysterious as the ‘C’ in Elaine C. Smith) and stretches himself too thin, cameraman and composer (his wailing end credit song a stinker) and director, probably producer too, resulting in some narrative unevenness, but miraculously every line spoken is believable, and sounds exactly right for the character speaking it. The man has talent. We might hear of him again, but not if he keeps emptying cinemas.

The tribe they’re hunting is described as cannibalistic, troglodytes of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine variety, inbred cave dwellers who have little need for clothes living in damp, wet caves – and believe me those prehistoric caves are always damp. I’ve explored a few. The troglodytes are a tiny in number, ashen faced tribe of the kind we see most Friday nights getting blind drunk and vomiting over the nearest policeman before arrested.

The film’s biggest problem is the hackneyed ending, the same ole predicable winners, the same ole losers and martyrs, and the same ole shoot out. But I have to repeat, the characters are thoughtfully rounded and embellished, Zahler’s script very entertaining, including exploration of life and love, and contrasting discussions about marriage.

It’s a three star night out, 18 and over only movie, just don’t eat beforehand … or after.

  • Star rating: Three and a half
  • Director: S. Craig Zahler
  • Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins
  • Writer: S. Craig Zahler
  • Duration: 132 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?
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3 Responses to Bone Tomahawk – a review

  1. Dorothy Devine says:

    I’ll give it a miss thanks!

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    And you won’t be the only person to make that choice. There was another western like it back in the day, ‘Soldier Blue’, a love story all the way until a bloody end with the cavalry wiping out a tribe of Indians in graphic detail. One horrific image in particular remains with me. Yuck.

  3. Macandroid says:

    Sounds just like a Tom and Jerry cartoon!

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