Chinmay Jadhav and Isaac Freeth have harsh words for Bone Tomahawk, a rambling, dull (and uber-violent) ‘horror-western’
Bone Tomahawk, Craig S. Zahler’s first film as director, tells the story of a late nineteenth-century frontier town called Bright Hope which is attacked by a group of vicious Native Americans. The tribesmen, in search of a murderous drifter who has desecrated their burial ground, carry away a sheriff’s deputy and the wife of a local foreman. The film charts the journey of the posse the local sheriff (Kurt Russell) puts together to rescue the abducted citizenry. Straight off the bat, there are some parts of this film that are a fucking nightmare. There’s a particularly lovely disembowelment scene near the film’s climax that made my scrotum shoot all the way up into my stomach. I’m not sure it’s ever coming back out again. This is not a film for the fainthearted (as this writer has apparently discovered himself to be). There are long stretches of silence and rambling True Grit-style florid dialogue scenes, punctuated by moments of sudden, brutal violence.
Yes, there are obvious flaws – the cinematography is often dull and inconsistent, the characters are flat, and there is no discipline in the film’s editing and pacing. But even with all those factors considered, this is a haunting piece of work. The slow-burning nature of the first two thirds of the film makes the gruesome confrontation of the final act truly striking. You have to wait for the film to make its point (and man it takes its sweet time getting there), but once you’re on the ride, it relentlessly hurtles towards the ending. The blending of the horror and Western genres might not seem like a natural fit, but S. Craig Zahler’s direction of the material evokes a stark, nightmarish vision, pitting the frail instruments of civilised life against the untamed savagery of the American frontier. That disembowelment scene alone will leave you clutching your private parts for comfort long after silence has fallen and the credits have rolled.
Avert your gaze.
Life in the frontier is hard, but sitting through Bone Tomahawk might actually be harder. For a film marketed as a ‘horror western’ it lacks both the style and, bar the film’s gory denouement, excitement, that a film combining cowboys and monsters demands. Instead, Bone Tomahawk devotes the meat of the narrative to travelling, but without the sweeping music or beautiful vistas the genre usually provides. The film is not much concerned with the romance of the old west. Nor does is it particularly care about character: the posse’s personalities are established early, and left undeveloped after around the half hour mark. It’s quite possible that Bone Tomahawk doesn’t care about anything.
In many ways, the film has all the typical features of a western, a gruff sheriff willing to put his life on the line for justice, a lothario gun slinger, a kidnapped wife, an out of his depth husband, and a depiction of native tribespeople unlikely to bring any smiles to the politically correct. The problem is, it doesn’t do anything with these characters. No one surprises, no one changes, unless you consider character development as a transition into the afterlife. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but its characters manoeuvre through a plot you’ve seen so often that it’s befuddling that Zahler barely lingers on his one innovation. The natives are the monsters of the film (and they are horrific) but for 1hr 40mins possess no immediate threat to our happy band of gunslingers. Instead of danger, instead of the only reason to see the film, Zahler emphasises a character’s injury, the perils of walking, of going to sleep, and the ramblings of perhaps the only non-traditional western character, an aged deputy whose loopy talks seem to occupy half of the film’s dialogue.
Ultimately it seems perverse that a film that so clearly wants to strip the west of its old romanticism, has refused to challenge any of the old narratives: the sheriff is a hero, the natives are evil, but now no one’s having any fun.
- Exceeds Expectations
Featured image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBK5MN8biN0