2015, NR, 132 min. Directed by S. Craig Zahler. Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkeit, Kathryn Morris, Sid Haig, David Arquette, Fred Melamed, Sean Young, Michael Paré.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 23, 2015
It’s been ages since Kurt Russell went into good-guy badass mode as deeply as he does in this debut feature from director S. Craig Zahler, and fans of John Carpenter-era Russell should shriek with glee at the grizzled actor’s perfectly calibrated performance in this horror-Western. Bone Tomahawk is The Searchers mashed up with Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, for sure, but no one can accuse Zahler, who also scripted, of not stealing from the best. A slow-burn tale about cowboy trackers with a third act so bloody that the film is so far unrated, Bone Tomahawk is as creepily vicious as the title implies. And it’s Russell’s best work in years.
Russell plays Franklin Hunt, sheriff of the unaptly named Bright Hope, a dusty little Western town in the 1880s that includes neighborly friends Arthur (Wilson, also excellent) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons), the aged deputy sheriff Chicory (Jenkins), and the narcissistic ex-soldier turned Indian hunter Brooder (Fox). All’s well until, in a too-brief opening sequence, two thieves (David Arquette and genre great Sid Haig) desecrate an Indian burial ground and end up attacked by unseen – but presumably Native American – killers. That desecration leads directly to the abduction of Mrs. O’Dwyer by said unseens, as well as the ensuing rescue party headed by Sheriff Hunt. All does not go well.
Westerns of any sort generally rely on one prominent hero supported by several charismatic underlings, and Bone Tomahawk is no exception. Russell’s Sheriff Hunt is a model of acting economy, but he’s backed by the film’s true hero, Arthur O’Dwyer, who has been hobbled by a carpentry accident earlier in the story. Wilson gives the man – wounded both literally and figuratively – a rock-solid presence that matches Russell’s sheriff. Hopping over treacherous gravel beds and climbing over mountains with only one game leg, O’Dwyer becomes, incrementally, a force perhaps even more powerful than the sheriff. It’s a terrific role alongside Russell and an unforgettable Jenkins, who just might put you in mind of Gabby Hayes.
Bone Tomahawk is not your typical Western retread, to be sure. If someone had told me that it was adapted from one of Joe R. Lansdale’s genre-hopping horror stories I would have believed it. Kudos then to director Zahler, who on his very first film, buries that goddamn tomahawk deep in the audience’s memory.
See "Dust and Bones," Oct. 23, for an interview with the filmmaker, and check out "Richard Jenkins Wields a Bone Tomahawk," for a chat with the Six Feet Under patriarch.
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Richard Whittaker, Oct. 23, 2015
Richard Whittaker, March 22, 2019
Aug. 7, 2022
April 29, 2022
Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler, Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Evan Jonigkeit, Kathryn Morris, Sid Haig, David Arquette, Fred Melamed, Sean Young, Michael Paré