Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Mood: If you can’t decide between a Western and a deeply unsettling psychological horror flick and you definitely don’t plan on eating again today because you for sure won’t want to.
I’m ashamed of how long it took me to see Bone Tomahawk.
I was SO INTO IT when I saw the first sneak peeks and the trailer. It had everything I was into: horror, Western, and Kurt Muthaf*cking Russell. I’d been hungry for another cult-ish Kurt Russell movie since his thoroughly disgusting turn in Death Proof. It looked gritty and sinister and I just couldn’t wait.
But I guess Bone Tomahawk had a limited release, I don’t even know if it played anywhere near me. And then somehow years passed and it became a thing: “you’ve seen Bone Tomahawk, right?” “No, but I really want to!”. At one point I even thought I had bought it online, and then went to watch it only to discover that it was still sitting in my wishlist.
Well, last night I FINALLY watched this haunting f*cking movie. And when I say haunting, I mean IT WILL HAUNT YOU ALL NIGHT LONG. It didn’t help that I watched it right before bed (mistake #1)… and around 3am there was a massive storm directly over our super remote ranch, complete with forked lightning, window-rattling thunder, and hail so hard it sounded like it was going to tear the roof off.
Bone Tomahawk isn’t for the weak of heart. Or the weak of stomach. Make sure you watch it with a buddy (mistake #2), and with your feet up under a blanket on the couch so the troglodytes can’t grab them.
Bone Tomahawk is set in the 1890s, in a fictional frontier settlement called Bright Hope. Don’t let the name fool you. In the first scene, two drifters have robbed and murdered a group of people, but they don’t get time to enjoy the spoils. A strange howling is heard, and the men are suddenly swarmed with arrows. You see a shadowy figure attacking one man as the other escapes.
That idiot (David Arquette) then staggers into Bright Hope, bringing death with him. Turns out he killed those people on some kind of ceremonial ground for a cannibalistic tribe of cave-dwellers, “a spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who rape and eat their own mothers” according to a local Native American known as the Professor (Zahn McClarnon).
It’s nighttime. You hear those same chilling howls. Then you see a sweet young Black man walking toward a barn to see what’s spooking the horses and you’re like NO DON’T GO INTO THE BARN!
A bunch of people get taken by the troglodytes, and a scrappy group assembles for pursuit: aging Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), even older backup-deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), deadly dandy Brooder (Matthew Fox), and rancher Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who has a broken leg but desperately wants to rescue his wife.
Despite the brutal violence, Bone Tomahawk isn’t a fast-paced slasher flick. It’s the slow, torturous burn of a really good psychological horror; there are long periods in the first two thirds where you aren’t even afraid because you can kind of forget about the evil. But then you’re hit with this horrific gore – not gratuitous gore, where you can kind of laugh it off. This is matter-of-fact gore shot at the same patient speed as the campfire dialogues.
The plot builds slowly, with barely any musical fuss. You get a lot of silence and nature sounds that establish the smallness of the community, the isolation. The sparse score also perfectly conveys that these aren’t Western action heroes – they’re ordinary, flawed men, being heroic.
The cinematography is also perfect for the story. It’s stark and dry: the greens are never actually green, and the shots are so close and crisp that you can see every detail, from dirt and sweat to wrinkles and bloodstains. Some shots linger on the place the characters just left like a warning not to go further.
I don’t even usually notice that shit! I’m not a cinephile, so it was huge for me to get so stirred up by camerawork.
Okay, let’s talk performances, because there isn’t a weak link in this cast.
I thought Bone Tomahawk was going to be all Kurt Russell, all the time. And he IS impressive, don’t get me wrong. But I was most blown away by Patrick Wilson.
His performance as stubborn, crippled rancher Arthur is both powerful and painful to watch. Arthur is the epitome of devotion and determination, pushing himself beyond the limits to find his wife. Wilson delivers with every fibre of his being, dragging you through every level of emotion while delivering just as much physicality.
You know it’s great when your whole body is clenched because you can almost feel the character’s pain through the screen.
Kurt Russell has never failed me. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but I also haven’t seen one that was less than awesome. I own Captain Ron, Overboard, Big Trouble in Little China, Tango and Cash, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Escape From New York/LA, Death Proof, and of course, Tombstone.
In Bone Tomahawk you can still hear Wyatt Earp loud and strong in his voice. Russell is grey all over, yet in every single scene he barely seems a day older than he did in any of those other movies. He’s commanding, yet not some impossibly strong badass. Russell gives you this very human man who simply follows his code to the end.
Richard Jenkins reminds me a bit of Bill Pullman’s Lefty Brown, as the bumbling backup to Sheriff Hunt. He’s chatty and delivers the film’s only hint of comic relief with a natural ease. But he also displays an underestimated strength and usefulness that keeps you looking to him in each scene, to see how he’ll surprise you.
Matthew Fox is great as Brooder, but it’s hard to explain exactly why. His character is brilliant and arrogant and has no personal growth, but Fox gives you this fierceness that feels like it has a rich backstory.
And then there’s David Arquette. I called him the weakest link in Dead Man’s Walk, but I actually like him. He’s just constantly cast as a manchild. In Bone Tomahawk Arquette is so different that it took me a moment to recognize him. His voice is gruff, and there’s no clowning around. He still has a hint of that cheeky glint in his eye, but he slips easily into the grim story.
Bone Tomahawk’s horrifying final act cements it as a horror Western, but it’s also weirdly romantic (because of Patrick Wilson) and a brilliant survival story (also Patrick Wilson).
I don’t want to watch it again anytime soon, because it seriously messed with my sleep. But I do want to try harder to spot David Midthunder (Comanche Moon, Hostiles, Hidalgo, Westworld) among those scary AF troglodytes!
Seriously though, this movie got to me! I just took a baseball bat with me to grab something from the barn…