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Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Director: S Craig Zahler
Stars: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins
Running Time: 132 min
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Theatrical Release: October 23, 2015
DVD Release: December 29, 2015

It’s good to see the weird west apparently thriving in the indie world. I’ve just finishedGhostwalkers, a glorious ride of a novel by Jonathan Maberry that’s based on a video game. Now here’s an indie feature with a real budget that allows for many recognisable faces.

It begins with David Arquette cutting a man’s throat while he sleeps. He and Sid Haig take down a whole camp site, searching for something, but, with horses fast approaching, they attempt an escape into the hills, only to get caught up in some sort of burial ground skull art installation. ‘It ain’t no concern for a civilised man,’ says Haig, scratching his nuts with the barrel of his gun. He’s taken down quickly but Arquette manages to stumble away, eventually making it into the town of Bright Hope, where he unwittingly sparks all the events to follow.

What we see is done with style and it’s done with some substance. It looks great, it sounds great and it pays a lot of attention to character development. There are quite a few cast members with something notable to do here and the opportunity to shine while doing so; most of them take that opportunity with both hands. Best of all, for what is partly a brutal horror movie, there’s a wry humour that pervades the script and keeps us interested in a whole bunch of different people.

The catches are that it’s a slow burn that gets slower until the final showdown and it carries a great inevitability to it that means few surprises are forthcoming. I have no concerns with slowness when that’s called for, such as the glacial pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, but this could have sped up a little and shed a few scenes without the desert’s sense of vast emptiness being lost to the tone of the piece. The inevitability is more understandable, as this is a Heart of Darkness-type journey as much as it ever is a destination, summed up well by a single line late in the movie.

Kurt Russell is the biggest name. He plays Sheriff Franklin Hunt of Bright Hope, not a stupid man but one who perhaps has too much confidence in his abilities. When Arquette vanishes from the town’s jail, apparently kidnapped along with Sabrina O’Dwyer, the lady doctor treating his wounds, and Hunt’s young deputy, Nick, leaving only her doctor’s bag and an arrow stuck in a wall, it’s the sheriff who leads the party to rescue them.

Going along for the ride are Arthur O’Dwyer, the lady doctor’s cowboy husband who’s supposed to be in bed resting his own wounds; Chicory, the town’s other deputy; and John Brooder, a mysterious but very well dressed man with an apparent talent for killing Indians. Given that Chicory is far from a young man and O’Dwyer’s leg is bad enough that he has trouble walking, we don’t need to wait for the bewildering end credits song to tell us that ‘four doomed men ride out’.

Each of these actors are names too, though I have to admit that I didn’t recognise most of them. Brooder is Matthew Fox, best known as Jack Shephard in Lost, O’Dwyer is Patrick Wilson, Nite Owl from Watchmen, and Chicory is character actor Richard Jenkins; just look at his long list of credits to see how many times you’ve seen him without necessarily knowing it. We’ve already met Arquette and Haig. The sheriff’s wife is Kathryn Morris, Lilli from Cold Case. The mayor’s wife is Sean Young and there’s also Michael Paré as a local gentleman of importance. S Craig Zahler, who wrote and directed, clearly knew who to talk to when putting his cast together.

Perhaps most impressive out of all of them, though, is Lili Simmons who plays Samantha O’Dwyer as a very different sort of damsel in distress. She’s only made a couple of movies but she has done a lot of TV work, where she’s best known for a show called Banshee. Maybe, now that I’ve heard of it, I should seek it out to see how she does with the much more expansive screen time that a TV show provides. She doesn’t get anywhere near a lot here.

The story of Bone Tomahawk is pretty simple and is frankly given away by the one sentence IMDb has for plot description: ‘Four men set out in the Wild West to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.’ It’s not really cowboys and indians, where the cowboys have lost their horses and the indians are troglodytes in the Valley of the Starving Men. It’s more like the cannibal horror movies where the first world protagonists gradually come to realise just how far they are from home, not just physically but culturally too, that ‘You’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy’ feeling. This is the wild west rather than the unexplored jungles of South America, so these caves are only a three day ride, but that’s a lot further on foot with a crutch and unimaginably further in mind.

I enjoyed the film, but more for its detail than its sweep. I admired the character building, which is too often prioritised far below the action, but felt that the balance had shifted a little too far the other way. The dialogue is superb, both in its writing and its delivery, but there are points that could easily have been trimmed. The stunning brutality of some scenes highlights how this is very much an indie feature, but the stars on show, the use of a decent budget and the obvious quality of many technical aspects often make us forget that. That last sentence translates to a strong recommendation, however flawed the film is.
~~ Hal C F Astell

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