Film Review: Bone Tomahawk

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler and starring Patrick Wilson, David Arquette and Kurt Russell.

Image taken from film Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler, produced by Transmission Films, streamed on Kanopy database.

BONE TOMAHAWK

It’s the 1890s, and the small American frontier town of Bright Hope has found itself the victim of a mysterious assault in the dead of night. Citizens have been abducted, horses stolen, and a hole left in the heart of what by all accounts appears to be a small oasis in the midst of a country in turmoil. Advised by a local tracker that the perpetrators are most likely a deeply feared clan of cave dwellers, commonly labelled as Troglodytes, antagonistically separate from all others, be they indigenous or more recent arrivals, notorious for their cruelty and terrifying semi-mystical reputation, a group of four men head out on the heels of these ghosts, into a great valley of uncertainty and peril. 

And an entertaining party of travellers it is - Patrick Wilson, providing the kind of effortless charm that a grip of movies from the last ten years have hung their hats on, the always reliable Richard Jenkins, a venomous Matthew Fox, and of course Kurt Russell bringing the gravitas that a lifetime of brooding screen machismo has earned. What is most rewarding about Bone Tomahawk is how it’s willing to take its time. It embraces the endless swaths of space needed to be covered by pilgrims in bygone days, the time it takes to traverse that space, and the dread uncertainty of being far from the tenuous safety of home and ever closer to an unnamable dread. 

As we’ve seen, the Western is far from gone, and in recent years its full potential to tell a range of stories, from the bittersweet Sisters Brothers, the looney tunes Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Jennifer Kent’s primal The Nightingale or Kelly Reichardt’s stunning First Cow, we’ve seen new ways of looking at a genre many might have considered tapped of its potential. The experiment here - the blending of Western tropes with a survivalist horror movie element that slowly comes to the fore, is a mixture that works with terrible efficiency. If this movie owes a debt to anything, it would be Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter – another Western that hovers in the zone of being not quite supernatural, but such an eventual perversion of reality that the mind recoils at what it’s being shown. 

This is not a film that examines frontier life, colonialism or race relations with any level of subtlety. Make no mistake, in its bones, this is a monster movie, the protagonists and ourselves are just unaware of the fact until it is far too late. 

S. Craig Zahler is a fascinating creator with three films under his belt to date: Bone Tomahawk, its follow up (and his greatest achievement) Brawl In Cell Block 99, a pared back, ultra-stylised descent that takes as many cues from German Expressionism as it does from gritty 1970's crime cinema, and his most recent effort Dragged Across Concrete - a movie that is perhaps attempting to say something about institutionalised racism and corruption, but is ultimately a depressing, ugly and morally cloudy experience. Throughout all three, and especially with this film, he balances an admirable ear for dialogue (his characters generally speak in an exaggerated, musical cadence and are prone to poetic flourish whenever possible), and the patience to create slow-burn ticking clock scenarios for his subjects and us to creep through. There is violence - with Zahler there is always violence, but it’s sparing use and transgressively shocking delivery is in the service of the slow, slow build to a terrible, inevitable revelation. It’s the lynchpin but not the focus. 

While the most obvious writer/director comparison to Zahler’s obsessions and tactics is Quentin Tarantino, that artist has moved into a more elegiac, romantic perspective of the world he’s made – the viewpoint of a man reckoning with age and perhaps the bigger picture of where his work stands. Zahler is still in the trenches. There’s no respite for the characters caught in the teeth of his stories – these are still tales of hardship and brutality, told with the kind of character work and attention to detail that Zahler is extremely good at, but inevitably in the service of far darker consequence than his elder cinematic architect. 

Zahler is a provocateur, which adds to a sense of tension and unpredictability when watching his films. We know that there’s a good chance he will show us the worst we’re capable of, but three movies into his directing career and it’s less clear exactly what it is he’s trying to say. If anything, he is teaching us that men are capable of a savagery that knows no bounds, and honour is a pursuit that will often go unrewarded and un-noticed. Bone Tomahawk is probably the most likeable of his films. There’s a base line of decency to the proceedings here, and a sense of hope that he seems to be slowly whittling away at in his work. It’s a philosophy of sorts - one that’s worth visiting but perhaps not for too long. We’ve all heard the one about the seeker that stared into the abyss. 

Further reading ​

  • A Director Who Is Old School with a Vengeance / Hoberman, J. The New York Times; New York. 29 Sep 2019 (article)
  • 'Dragged Across Concrete' director S. Craig Zahler: "I don't think US cinema is in a good place" / Grater, Tom. Screen International; London. Sep 7, 2018 (article)
  • Bone Tomahawk / Bitel, Anton. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 26, Iss. 3,  (Mar 2016): 64-65 (article)
  • Best western: why Bone Tomahawk became a gunslinging cult hit / Godfrey, Alex. The Guardian; London (UK) 20 May 2016: 12 (article)
  • 'Populists' Turning Controversy into Cash / Miller, Stuart. Hollywood Reporter; Hollywood Vol. 425, (Jan 24, 2019): 44,46. (article)
  • The Big Scream / Shepherd, Jack. The Independent (Daily Edition); London (UK) [London (UK)]07 Oct 2017: 90 (article)
  • Late Westerns : the persistence of a genre / Mitchell, Lee Clark ; Lincoln, Nebraska ; London : University of Nebraska Press ; 2018 (ebook)
  • It follows / Grimm, Josh; Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire LU7 1NP: Auteur Publishing; 2018 (ebook)
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