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