Kurt Russell starred in two Westerns last year, and I’m kind of puzzled as to why I ended up seeing this before The Hateful Eight, but I like Westerns and Russell starred in one of my favorites in Tombstone, so I went ahead and checked out the buzz around Bone Tomahawk. It is, in many ways, a very traditional Western with chunks of extremely non-traditional Western…..chunks of people. Is it worth seeing? I think so, especially for the script and Richard Jenkins supporting performance, but be aware that it gets bloody in Bright Hope
Two idiots go and mess with an Indian burial site (which is just never good news if you’re in a Western), and the surviving one makes his way to the town of Bright Hope, where Kurt Russell is Sheriff, Patrick Wilson is a foreman left behind on this year’s cattle drive due to a broken leg, Richard Jenkins is the back-up deputy sheriff and Matthew Fox (who is unrecognizable in the film) is a professional killer of Native Americans. The aforementioned idiot gets himself arrested and is left in the overnight care of the deputy sheriff (not to be confused with the back-up deputy sheriff) and the wife of Wilson’s character who serves as town doctor when the town doctor is too drunk to operate. By morning, they’re gone and the traditional posse is assembled.
Thing is, these aren’t a normal tribe of Native Americans, as one who lives in the town is happy to point out. They’re troglodytes. Inbred, cannibals who paint themselves white and fight with bone weapons crafted from their dinners/conquests. If they go after them, they’re going to die, but go after them they do and the posse heads out. This is where the Western’s traditional format ends and both the good and bad of this film shine. S. Craig Zahler’s script is a delight to hear performed. He has a real talent for dialogue and I look forward to seeing what he’ll come up with in the future.
The cast is very good. Kurt Russell is Kurt Russell, which is good or bad depending entirely on your level of Kurt Russell fondness. Patrick Wilson has to spend the entire film hobbling, hopping, walking with a crutch or crawling on his belly, and I can only imagine how physically challenging that had to have been. The standout in the cast is Richard Jenkins, whose ancient, rambling back-up deputy sheriff has some of the best lines and monologues I’ve heard in awhile. The bad of it is two-fold: one is inherent to the genre and Zahler’s relative inexperience. The other is just bloody.
Westerns meander. The format of the genre leaves it very easy to get caught up with shots of beautiful frontier and people astride horseback crossing said beautiful frontier. Bone Tomahawk is roughly 2 hours 15 minutes and it really could have used at least 15 minutes trimmed off of the film to tighten the pacing, because, especially in the second act, the film does meander. Bone Tomahawk has gotten a lot of buzz because it’s a quality film shot in three weeks on two locations 60 miles outside of LA and because it contains some of the most grotesque violence I’ve ever seen in any movie…ever. There’s one thing that’s so bad, I couldn’t even watch it. Clearly inbred, cannibals are not going to be NICE, but I really wish I could unsee a few things. Violence can be necessary to a story or it can be indulgent. There are things in this film that never should have been thought of by a human being, let alone shot.
It says a lot that despite those problems, the film does work as a whole. Zahler’s script is great, the performances are fantastic and, for fans of the genre, this is going to be one to see. If you’re not inclined to like Westerns in the first place, this is not the film to convert you, and I really wish they’d have reigned themselves in a little with the brutality. I can say this, though, if you watch it, you’re not going to forget it.