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Review: Bone Tomahawk – “A muscular, unpredictable and bloody western”

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“You’re pretty angry for a guy named Buddy.”

Following Slow West, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, the deceased genre of the western has exerted a recent blip of life in its contemporary flat-line. Bone Tomahawk could be the one that got the heart thumping again, or, more accurately described in this films case, got the blood flowing. It is the latest in a mini-renaissance, but its also a western that acts as a counterpoint to said films which are artistically grandiose and, dare I say, far more pretentious. This is western in the proficient, classical sense of the genre – slow-burning, character-driven and devoid of hyperbolic intellectualisation. Certainly in the mould of John Ford. Genre twist being: it’s also got freaky cave-dwelling cannibal’s in it. So, John Ford meets Wes Craven.

Kurt Russell, brandishing a beard so mighty even Thor couldn’t wield it, is certainly the John Wayne figure of this film – an alpha-male who brings his genre-credited persona to the film as Sherriff Hunt. Hunt is a dutiful authority figure with a penchant for shooting unsavoury newcomers in the leg at the frontier town of Bright Hope. When local surgeon, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), gets kidnapped by said freaky cave-dwelling cannibal’s, Hunt goes a-huntin’ and forms a motley crew filled with the gun-tottin’, Indian-hatin’, John Brooder (Matthew Fox), senior deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and local incapacitated foreman, Athur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), whose wife it is that gone got kidnapped. This is director, S. Craig Zahler’s, twist on the classic western masterpiece, The Searchers (1956), sharing a similar narrative premise of a group of men going into the wilderness to rescue a damsel from the clutches of ‘savages’. The genres defining dichotomy, which pits the forces of civilization against that of savagery, are amplified radically here; the ‘savages’ rather than being Native Americans known by that unfortunate term, are genuinely savage – The Hills Have Eyes and then some. One death scene, with its creative dispatching and graphic detail, is going to stay with you in that cinematic memory archive. With a menace of such exaggerated proportions in an otherwise realistic depiction of the frontier, the film has something to say about paranoia of the ‘Other’ and the idiocy of men, who because they have their gun and their balls, assume they can exert civilization (i.e patriarchy) onto the wilderness. In its unflattering portrayal of male machismo and sadomasochism, and the imagery of castration recurring through the film, indicates otherwise. Rather than John Ford’s reverence for the masculine pioneer, the film critiques the blustering arrogance of men.

The film is less outlandishly entertaining then the B-movie premise implies, and the pace often sags in the film, but, as my basic reading may have alluded to, it is far more astute than one may anticipate. It is the Stagecoach-esque character dynamic within the group as they venture into the wilderness that drives the story; so when the films length goes beyond the 90-minute B-movie cut-off point, into the risky wilderness of over two hours, its likely you will permit it and welcome it. It’s also funnier than one may expect, with some cracking Coen Brothers type, Tarantino-ee lines of dialogue delivered acutely by a cast on top form.

A trend of mid-budget westerns looks set to continue this year in genre exercises such as Forsaken(starring Keith and Donald Sutherland) and Diablo (starring Clint’s doppelganger son, Scott Eastwood), all of which points to a (welcomed?) industrial resurgence of the genre. The humble intentions and excessive violence of Bone Tomahawk provide a charm in its obvious love for genre and films in general – this is a muscular, unpredictable and bloody western performing new tricks with old tropes. Much to be admired.

4-out-of-5

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