Not yet released in the UK, I’m lucky enough to have seen Bone Tomahawk thanks to the kindness of a gift-giving friend over in the States. It’s odd to see Kurt Russell looking for all the world as if he’s reprising a role in a film that I only know through trailers and stills – that film is Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s much-hyped and somewhat divisive chamber piece.
Bone Tomahawk sees him inhabiting a similarly brutal world, in a similar time period. He’s also got a similarly impressive set of facial furniture. This is a horror film, though it hides its fangs and claws for more than an hour. It is almost unwatchably grotesque at times once the blood starts to spill, however. The film’s success, however, is down to the kindness at the heart of its grim and cruel frontier.
This is S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut and it’s an astonishing way to announce an arrival. It’s a beautiful film but more impressive than that, Zahler shows a patient control of his accomplished cast that gets the best out of the ensemble.
For most of its running time, Bone Tomahawk is a road movie of sorts. The journey is to end with a rescue attempt and the travelers are ill-prepared. They’re not quite a gang of misfits but along with Russell’s sheriff, they count among their number a wounded cowboy (Patrick Wilson), a murderous dandy (Matthew Fox), and an ageing and confused Deputy (Richard Jenkins). All four speak in the manner of frontiersmen past, rarely using one short word when there’s a flowery or extravagant longer one that might work, and the actors enjoy every mouthful of the screenplay.
They’re wise to enjoy it. These are characters who can make every shot of whiskey in a spit and sawdust saloon seem like manna from heaven, and as they set out toward what appears to be certain death, it’s a pleasure to be in their company.
The journey itself is sheer agony. Travelling across the great wastes and valleys of the West is slow-going, and the time that isn’t taken up with talking is generally taken up with sleeping and surviving. Wilson, wounded before the film begins, is like a cross for the others to bear, almost reduced to crawling through the dust like a snake on its belly. Grit and determination are the qualities of those who have the will to survive, the film seems to say.
And yet not everyone can survive, no matter what their finer qualities. A slightly flat though entertaining pre-credits sequence aside, Bone Tomahawk doesn’t show the cruelty of its intentions until late in the game. It’s not even that the build-up is one of slowly increasing dread and tension – rather, it’s as if the creators wanted to make a good Western and then crash that first film into a good horror when the time was right.
It’s an approach that I associate with Tarantino himself, along with sometime collaborator Robert Rodriguez, thanks to gorefest From Dusk Til Dawn, though Bone Tomahawk is a much finer film. Perhaps it’s strange to say, of a film about a tribe of furious cannibals, that it treats its subject with a degree of seriousness that makes the horror (when it comes) all the more unbearable, but that’s certainly the case. It takes its time to establish a sense of place and to give its characters reasons to fight for their lives before erasing them in a shower of gore.
Despite one scene in which the camera focuses on a protracted scene of extreme violence – and does so to demonstrate that characters within the film are being forced to watch – the deaths and injuries are mostly swift and shocking. There’s a remarkable paradox of truths – that the human body is fragile and can be persuaded to give up the ghost at a second’s notice, and that flesh is resilient and can take arrows, bullets and knives as a matter of course. Sometimes I wasn’t sure who had been injured or by what until a scene escaped from the panic of an initial encounter.
At its foundation, Bone Tomahawk plays up ideas of savages and the otherness of the tribes at the periphery of the new America. It risks becoming something ugly but there are enough acknowledgements of the evils that this particular tribe commits, a tribe that a Native American going by the name The Professor describes as despicable savages. The film doesn’t treat them as an inevitable force of nature, or as the land striking back at its occupiers, it simply presents them as sadistically cruel. They are, to settlers and indigenous people alike, the equivalent of the baddies in The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s a film that focuses on the bloody nature of survival rather than taking time to moralise. There are good men and bad men (there are few women and they are mostly victims; many of the men are victims as well, of course, and one woman is a very capable victim), and there are various implements used to obliterate men on both sides of that divide.
This is a film in which it takes over two hours to ride into and crawl back out of the meatgrinder. It is sedate on the whole but the violence is alarmingly sudden and its impact shockingly immediate. What separates it from the worst torture porn excesses of the horror genre is its determination to sympathise with its characters. Nobody is expendable and nobody is marked out as that one character we’re supposed to dislike enough to enjoy seeing them dismembered.
Like the combination of Ravenous and The Descent I never knew I wanted, Bone Tomahawk arrived at the end of the last year and shot straight into my top ten list. If it sounds even vaguely like your kind of thing, be sure to check it out when it arrives in a cinema near you. Or arrives in your home – I’m not even remotely convinced it’s going to get the wide release it deserves here in the UK.