Saturday 25 May 2019

Movie Review: Bone Tomahawk (2015)

An engrossing horror western, Bone Tomahawk injects a sturdy rescue mission with a few unforgettable moments of abominable gore.

Deep in the western wilderness, outlaw Purvis (David Arquette) barely survives an encounter with a cannibalistic tribe. Terrified, he arrives at the nearby small town of Bright Hope. Backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) quickly pegs Purvis as trouble and Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) duly shoots him in the leg. Town resident Samantha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons) has medical training and is recruited to extract the bullet, while her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is bed-ridden with a broken leg.

The night does not go well: Samantha, Purvis, and deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) are kidnapped by the tribals, who also steal five horses. Franklin, Chicory, the distraught Arthur and debonair marksman John Brooder (Matthew Fox) form a rescue party and ride out on an arduous five day journey towards the tribal caves. But with Arthur hobbled and tensions rising among the men, even getting close to their objective will prove difficult.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt: Pain is how your body talks to you. You'd do well to listen to it.

A weighty yet enthralling dissertation on just how wild the wild west really was, Bone Tomahawk rides then walks into uncharted territory with a refreshing lack of irony. First-time director and writer S. Craig Zahler takes no shortcuts, unfurling his story over 130 minutes as he demonstrates deep caring for his setting and characters. The film builds to an exhilarating 45 minute climax of insane tension and violence.

The action unfolds in three neat acts. The opening introduces the town of Bright Hope and its inhabitants. Sheriff Hunt and his talkative but willing backup deputy Chicory are both weathered but hold the place together. Brooder is mysteriously arrogant. Samantha and Arthur O'Dwyer are very much in love, but his broken leg is creating a strain.

The second act is the longest, the four men trekking and camping across the wilderness. Arthur's injury gets worse as Brooder's backstory story comes to the fore and causes friction. His trigger-happy methods and prickly personality threaten to either derail the mission or salvage it. Plus he has a history of an attempted romance with Samantha, which further sours Arthur's mood.

Brooder: Smart men don't get married.

Zahler's affection towards his story shines in this middle section, the level of anticipation rising slowly but surely against the untamed scenery and silence of the west. With no music soundtrack to artificially inflate emotions, the determination of the characters to survive against the elements and each other drives the narrative forward. Chicory's incessant chattering adds touches of humour and occasionally serves as an essential interpersonal conflict diffuser.

Chicory: You know, I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part.

And then the third and final act arrives, and the investment in people pays off handsomely. Bone Tomahawk features some genuinely difficult-to-stomach scenes, the rescue plan disintegrating in the face of a merciless and savage enemy, acts of improvisation and extreme heroism required for any chance of survival.

Samantha: This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements but because of the idiots.

A non-intrusive soft stream of religious belief runs through the movie, including Arthur having a couple of quick conversations with God at crucial moments. In the face of unimaginable horror, the turn to divine intervention is no less than justified. And from the heartless murders in the very opening scene to Brooder's revenge-driven judge, jury, and executioner mentality, the film offers constant reminders about the relativism of civilized evolution.

Chicory: Mr. Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny.

The excellent four lead performers are a large part of the film's success. Veterans Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins create an instant rapport, Matthew Fox is a revelation as the complex Brooder, and Patrick Wilson has the most physically and emotionally demanding part.

Smart, sharp and uncompromising in respecting both the genre's fundamentals and the era's metaphoric brutality, Bone Tomahawk is a fine young cannibal.

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