Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Date: February 19th
The classic American western created heroes, and inspired young men to imitate their idols when fighting. The spaghetti western, as an outsider movement, questioned the moral centre of the protagonist, dirtied the aesthetic, and drew our attention towards the racism that defined much of the 18th century. Then Vietnam happened.
Those who had “John Wayned” it in the battles of Ia Drang and Khe Sahn, under the banner of liberty, arrived home traumatized after their exposure to senseless and brutal warfare. Inspiring Sam Pekinpah to shoot The Wild Bunch, a tale of nihilistic ultra-violence, his portrayal spoiled the fun for white America. Challenging the Western’s patriotism, he left the field open to revisionism: a subgenre which is defined by barbarity, racism, and the sound of flies buzzing around corpses.
Spawning such popular works as Deadwood, True Grit, There Will Be Blood, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, the subgenre has arguably salvaged the Western from descending into obscurity, though it certainly bears little resemblance to the genre’s former self. However, while the aforementioned films reshaped the classic formula, none come close to Bone Tomahawk, which warps revisionism to a new level of twisted sickness entirely.
Starring Kurt Russell, and set over the course of two gruesome weeks in a town called Bright Hope, Bone Tomahawk is the vulgar directorial debut of novelist and cinematographer, S Craig Zahler. Commencing on a morbid note, the sight of a man having his throat slit incorrectly, the cold opening tails after two bandits who accidentally stumble onto a peculiar burial site that is decorated with skulls. Attacked by a group of mysterious silhouetted figures, only one of the pair manages to succeed in escaping with his life. However, in the process, he stumbles upon even greater misfortune, as he is arrested, and condemned to hang.
Captured by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), his imminent execution is prevented when a similar series of attacks occur in Bright Hope. Culminating in the abduction of this prisoner, Nick, the local deputy and an assistant doctor, called Samantha, the local authorities move to investigate the matter further, learning that the kidnappers are troglodytes, a cave-dwelling mythical race of Neanderthal human beings.
Enraged, Sherriff Hunt vows to travel out to their cave in the Valley of the Starving Man, taking with him an eclectic trio of men; Chicory, an elderly back-up deputy, Brooder a womanizing scholar with a talent for killing Native Americans, and Arthur, Samantha’s husband, who can contribute to the team both passion and a broken leg.
Endearingly naive, the quartet embarks upon a lengthy and ominous journey into this enigmatic valley, merging Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Struggling on like troopers, the subsequent hail of bullets, blood, arrows and cannibal warriors takes each of them into a world scarcely imaginable.
The horrors within the cave could take the steak in your stomach and churn it into festering butter. People are sliced up like cattle, hacked from the bottom upwards until their final meal is on show. Cave-dwelling women are amputated and blinded, in order to simply function as vessels for reproduction, and the viewer is treated as if they are next up for this torturous slaughter. It is nauseating and thrilling in equal measures, despite the hopelessness that pervades throughout the second and third act.
However, what makes Bone Tomahawk an intriguing addition to the Revisionist Western is how it assesses the racial issues of the era. The troglodytes are neither Native, nor European American, but rather a hybrid of the two, using scalping tactics, while also showing a disdain towards black people in refusing to eat their bodies. They are the reprehensible and violent aspects of both ethnicities. In this sense, they are the hideous monster that mutates from racial divisions.
Undoubtedly, Zahler’s debut will have limited appeal being a sub-sub-genre with high levels of visceral gore. Yet, despite such extreme bursts of horror, the real fear stems from the gradual build up, when these men venture into unknown and understandably unexplored areas of America. It is the ambience, the silence, and the sparse musical howls of the Troglodyte people that set the bar high here, and that haunting mystique is robbed by Zahler’s choice to end the suspense, in favour of vivid slaughter.
Bone Tomahawk excels when it opts for ambiguity and uncertainty. We are captivated when we do not know exactly what is being seen, so if Zahler had held back even a little bit more, then this film would certainly have been a magnificent and terrifying ordeal throughout. Unfortunately however, he, like us needed to know more, and hence, surrendered to his urges.