Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: BONE TOMAHAWK Is One Of The Most Brutal Westerns Ever Put To Film

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Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: BONE TOMAHAWK Is One Of The Most Brutal Westerns Ever Put To Film
It appears safe to say that whatever medium he may be working in, Bone Tomahawk writer-director S Craig Zahler has a tendency to play things hard and dark. As a musician Zahler lives in the heavy and black metal worlds with his bands Charnel Valley and Realmbuilder. As a novelist he's best known for ultra dark western Wraiths of the Broken Land and crime novel Mean Business On North Granson Street. As a script writer he's topped the prestigious Black List whiel drawing the attention of directors like Park Chan-wook. In other words, Zahler's a man who does quite a lot of things, he does them dark and nasty, and he does them really quite well. And given that this acclaimed author actually began his post secondary schooling studying cinematography at NYU ... well, it comes as no surprise to see Zahler now adding directing to his already packed resume. And it's also no surprise that the result is all sorts of dark and nasty.

Small town cowboy Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is all set up for months of boredom, a tumble while repairing his roof having left him with a broken leg just at the start of the cattle drive. Which is a bitter pill to swallow, but one made somewhat less bitter by the fact he at least gets to spend the season with his lovely bride, Samantha. But domestic bliss does not hold for long, Samantha - a skilled doctor - pressed into service when the local sheriff (Kurt Russell) shoots a mysterious drifter in the leg. The shooting itself is a common enough occurrence, in fact it seems standard practice for Sheriff Hunt. But what nobody knows is that the drifter in question has raised the ire of a nearby band of cave dwelling cannibals by disrupting their burial ground and when they find him they take not only the drifter back to their food pens but also the Sheriff's deputy and Mrs O'Dwyer. And so, with most of the able bodied men of the town off on the cattle run a small posse of the injured Arthur, the Sheriff, his aging assistant deputy Chicory - played by the fabulous Richard Jenkins - and a wealthy local Indian hunter who once had designs on Samantha for himself (Matthew Fox) must set off on what is almost certainly a suicidal rescue mission.

The sheer quality of the cast in the relatively low budget Bone Tomahawk speaks volumes as to the respect that Zahler is afforded within the Hollywood community. This is a man actors want to work with and it's not particularly hard to see why. His writing is sharp, all of the key characters rich and well defined and his take on the genre both respectful of its roots while also brash and muscular enough to reinvigorate it for new audiences. Jenkins and Russell, in particular, clearly recognize what they've been handed here and both jump into their parts with relish and while Fox struggles some to come up to the level of the material and Wilson is given little more to do than grimace through pain for the bulk of the picture, neither are weak enough to distract.

Zahler does suffer from some first time jitters, however. The degree of care put into his leads simply does not apply to the secondary parts. Samantha (Lili Simmons) is never treated as any more than window dressing, which becomes a significant issue in establishing the emotional stakes of the journey and while Zahler pulls some good moments out of cameos from Sid Haig, Sean Young and David Arquette they feel isolated from the rest of the picture rather than integrated properly within a larger world. And some will certainly complain of pacing issues with the early going feeling very deliberate and almost preformed for the stage before it all ultimately builds into something far more kinetic and brutal. Which leads us to the question of the villains of the piece ...

First of all, yes. This is very much a film about a group of white, European settlers in North America setting out on a mission to butcher the indigenous inhabitants. There is no way around that and nowhere in the film is it ever suggested that this is a bad idea, at least not beyond the fact that the white people will probably be butchered first. This is a significant issue and one that Zahler attempts to side step by making a distinction between the posse's cannibalistic targets and the rest of the native population, that line being drawn in the film by an aboriginal character - the film's ONLY aboriginal character, if you accept the line he draws - who explains to the white men that while this clan may appear to be 'Indians' to the white people, they have been rejected as such by the rest of the aboriginal people who refer to them as troglodytes, a designation that the posse willingly accepts. Indeed, when we get our first proper look at the clan they are coated down with dust and clay to make them look like something completely other and there is reason to believe that what we are looking at here are not homo sapiens at all but the end of some forgotten and failed parallel line of evolution. In other words, Zahler is introducing an actual strain of sub-humans to be the targets of the white men to avoid accusations of treating aboriginals as sub-human.

And then there is the confrontation itself. While Zahler keeps the audience waiting for the violence to arrive when it does it is astoundingly frank and unvarnished. When bad things happen, they are very very bad, indeed, and delivered on screen with a blunt, matter of fact approach that makes them all the more stomach churning. This aint no John Wayne western, that's for damn sure, this is a world in which the inhabitants are little more than meat and are treated as such. It appears that the current plans are for the film to be released unrated but were this to go to the MPAA it would be a sure fire NC-17. There's no question at all about that.

Though certainly not without its flaws, Bone Tomahawk very much succeeds in demonstrating the unique voice of its massively talented creator. It merits the controversy it will spawn while also meriting awards talk for Jenkins, in particular, and stands as a compelling starting point to what will surely be a long directing career for Zahler.

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bone tomahawkKurt RussellMatthew FoxPatrick WilsonreviewRichard JenkinsS. Craig ZahlerwesternAdventureDramaHorror

More about Bone Tomahawk

RolandDeschain1 .October 4, 2015 6:17 PM

Good to hear, especially since I found the trailer to be a little dry.

If this makes money maybe Zahler himself can finally make THE BRIGANDS OF RATTLEBORGE.

Plan9_of_the_ApesOctober 4, 2015 6:55 PM

All of a sudden this is more interesting to me than either THE REVENANT or HATEFUL EIGHT. It must be because of Jenkins, who'd seal any deal for me. Richard Jenkins in a Marvel movie, and I'd capitulate. (And, yes, this postulate has led me into very terrible territory in the past, but it has never been Jenkins' fault.)

Unflinching_EyeOctober 4, 2015 9:38 PM

Glad to hear Zahler has succeeded with this. Zahler really is an interesting fellow. And when Jack Ketchum endorses his novel WRAITHS OF THE BROKEN LAND with the words "always rings true, whether it's visiting the depths of despair, the fury of violence, or the fragile ties that bind us together for good or ill" it's no surprise that the violence in TOMAHAWK is NC17 level. Nice to see a mention of the NWOBHM goodness of Realmbuilder too ;)

Unflinching_EyeOctober 4, 2015 9:40 PM

Forgot to ask: Todd, having seen it would you describe Tomahawk as having a touch of Blood Meridian in its DNA?

Todd BrownOctober 4, 2015 10:57 PM

Very different in terms of story but my hunch is Zahler would be flattered at the comparison. Same sort of roots, yes.

owenOctober 5, 2015 11:55 AM

quick question how is the cinematography?

Todd BrownOctober 5, 2015 1:25 PM

Solid. Looked pretty good to me.