Bone Tomahawk movie review: 'the kind of smart, meticulously conceived Western Tarantino could only dream of making'
I know what you’re thinking. Kurt Russell and that glorious new beard of his, setting off into the unknown, armed and ready, and with a questionable team of allies by his side. We’ve seen this Western before, right?
Indeed, Quentin Tarantino’s loathsome and bloated murder mystery, The Hateful Eight, is still showing in cinemas. In it, a moustachioed Russell plays a cartoonish bounty hunter nicknamed ‘The Hangman’. In contrast, Russell’s careful, understated role in the marvellous Bone Tomahawk, as the venerable sheriff of a town called Bright Hope, is one in which the former poster boy for cult 80s action thrillers is required to do a spot of acting for a change.
Different movie, similar genre. Better script, better Western. We could continue with the comparisons, but the point is, a few long-winded character exchanges aside, not to mention the odd bout of grotesque violence (the movie opens with somebody’s throat being slit), Bone Tomahawk is the kind of smart and meticulously conceived Western that the Tarantino fella could only ever dream of making. It’s also a bit of a horror.
Set in the 1890s, the story goes that Bright Hope has just inadvertently welcomed its 269th resident — a sweaty and nervous thief and murderer named Purvis (played by David Arquette) — and Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) isn’t best pleased. The man with the badge knows trouble when he sees it.
One thing leads to another, and Purvis ends up spending the night in a cell. As it transpires, the thief and his dead buddy got themselves in a spot of trouble with some savage cave dwellers out yonder, and whaddaya know? The cannibalistic tribe has only come looking for the chap, breaking into the sheriff’s quarters and kidnapping his deputy, his prisoner and the local foreman’s doctor wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons). So, there’s only one thing left to do: pack some food and bullets, gather the troops and set off on a rescue mission.
Arthur, the injured foreman (an excellent Patrick Wilson) follows, as does the smartest gunslinger in town, John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the sheriff’s amiable, bumbling back-up deputy, Chicory (a brilliant Richard Jenkins).
It’ll take the group days to catch up in the blistering sun (especially when their horses are stolen) and there isn’t a man among them prepared for the kind of gruesome shenanigans that awaits their arrival at the caves.
A confident and commendable piece courtesy of first-time director S Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk is a slow-burning tale; intense, naturalistic and surprisingly funny, too.
A steady and collected Russell keeps the head down, a manic Fox just about remembers to blink and Jenkins relishes a role in which he’s required to spout a handful of amusing one-liners at all the wrong times. Oh, and poor Wilson’s leg is banjaxed, so you can guess how that part of the journey goes.
For 100 minutes or so, Bone Tomahawk plays out as a clever and truly enjoyable Western… and then the film turns all kinds of nasty.
Put it this way: the final third features one of the most appalling acts of on-screen violence I’ve witnessed in a long, long time. No messing, lads, it damn near put me off my morning pastry.
But hey, you know what the mission involves, and even if things do get spectacularly dark towards the end, Bone Tomahawk still stands strong as a solid and, occasionally, masterful Western, with a cracking line-up of actors out in front.