Walking into BONE TOMAHAWK, your expectations are obviously those of the typical western film, full of good guys and bad guys shooting at each other over some issue. What makes the film so great though, is how unlike that western cliche it actually is. Instead, you’re given one hell of a character driven film, with enough unflinching, realistic violence to make the most hardcore horror fan squeamish more than once. If there’s ever a genre hybrid of a film to get on board with it, it’s definitely this one.
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler (who wrote the entertaining ASYLUM BLACKOUT), BONE TOMAHAWK is a film that does a fine job of developing its characters so much and so well, that just at the thought of any of them meeting their end in the film, brings you gut-punches and a sense of foreboding dread. When the film opens, we follow a duo of thieving murderers (David Arquette and Sid Haig), who make the mistake of desecrating an Indian burial ground, an act that will set in motion a series of actions that end up affecting quite a few people. When Arquette’s drifter character finds himself drinking in the small town of Bright Hope, he’s quickly confronted and shot by the town’s sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and throw in the town’s jail. Being an ensemble piece, we’re also introduced to Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson, INSIDIOUS), a man whose leg is badly injured and slowly taking the time to heal, and his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons); An aging back-up deputy named Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a gentleman whose presence and morals are somewhat of a mystery.
One of the absolute masterstrokes of Zahler’s talent comes in the fact that unlike a lot of films these days, he allows his characters in BONE TOMAHAWK to be full realized, even before the trouble enters their lives. By the time very dangerous and cannibalistic savages quietly enter the town and not only abduct Arquette’s drifter character, but Mrs. O’Dwyer as well, we’ve already gotten the chance to latch onto the film’s characters, so when Hunt leads a four man mission to rescue Samantha in what seems to be a suicide mission, we’re already feeling that knot in our throats, knowing that the film is about to get quite bloody. With Arthur’s leg injury, it’s obvious to everyone, especially himself, that he’s in no condition to go, but he insists on helping rescue his wife and the other men, though they’re aware that he’ll slow them down, agree.
What happens next, is a somewhat lengthy buildup, with the four men making the long trek to find the savages and rescue the captured woman. The trek allows the film’s viewers to get to know each man’s strengths and weaknesses, and it’s great to watch a film that isn’t afraid to breathe for a while, to learn about the characters in which you’re asked to follow. Russell’s Sheriff Hunt feels the burden of making sure Samantha is rescued, due to his shooting of the drifter, an action that in turn brought the savage into town to get the drifter who had wronged their burial ground, and put Mrs. O’Dwyer in jeopardy. It’s an absolutely no-lose journey for every one of the men, they each feel a big pressure and duty to succeed, so when O’Dwyer’s leg gets continually worse, it begins to slow the men down, forcing them to make a decision whether or not they must leave Arthur behind, something that’s never easy to decide on.
While the film’s has a good amount of character development and succeeds as a really entertaining western drama on its own, when the men come into contact with the savages in the film’s second half, it rivals even the goriest of films, putting such a realistically graphic amount of violence on the screen, and the film feels like an almost hopeless affair, one filled with blood, guts, beheadings and some of the most impressively vicious acts of violence since CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. It punches you in the heart and stomach, making you feel for each character and having a genuine hope for the men to succeed with their mission and live to tell the tale.
BONE TOMAHAWK refuses to pull a single punch, giving viewers a bloody, gory and realistically effective horror/western that you will find impossible to forget for days after watching it. It’s without a doubt that the film will be one that will prove to be a lasting and cinematic nightmare of anger and violence, of redemption and dedication.