Bone Tomahawk is a steady mix of Western and Horror smooshed together seamlessly. It has all the usual Western tropes, albeit reduced to their simplest and most realistic, but also adds in significant enough moments of gore and cannibalism to stick with you long after the film has ended. It's certainly not a film for the mainstream, which is probably why it coasted under the radar upon its release. It's a slow burn that takes the time to find humour, charm, and entertainment in the mundane. It's first act puts you right into late 1800s frontier America for the everyday civilian. Cowboys are literally just guys who heard cows, Sheriffs keep peace in a quiet town, bartenders struggle for custom, doctors tend to the sick and injured, and ex-military keep to themselves harbouring their own inner demons. Life is quiet and peaceful inside the town, but wild and dangerous outside.
The film opens with a guy's throat being sliced open, but not in the typical Hollywood fashion of a quick cut and blood spurting everywhere. It's like slicing through meat and bone. This pretty much sets the tone of the whole movie. It prefers gritty realism to anything else, without glamourising anything, and also doesn't shy away from it's more graphic moments. When someone is brutally murdered, they're really, brutally murdered. Slicing, stabbing, guts and blood. Bone Tomahawk is not for the squeamish or faint of heart.
But the realism also extends to frontier life. I've already mentioned how it portrays a quiet town in the off-season, and the every day civilians who inhabit it, but each character who gets focus is built in such a way that they're not just characters; they're believable personalities with backstorys, desires, and varying degrees of intelligence. The use of vocabulary alone not only transports us back to those times, but also speaks volumes to each character and their motivations.
The acting is top-notch across the board. Kurt Russell is Kurt Russell. He just oozes screen presence just by being there, and his Sheriff is both smart and patient, with his heart in the right place, and an awareness for those around him that makes him both intuitive as a Sheriff and empathic to his fellow men, no questions asked. His back-up deputy is played by Richard Jenkins with a gentle naivety that's hard not to love. He's old and chatty, but isn't too smart. Yet Jenkins manages to breathe such life into him that he never feels like the joke of the film, even though he's by far the most humorous character. Patrick Wilson's cowboy Arthur is the everyman of the group, and his broken leg throughout puts him in a unique position not often seen in movies. He's in pain almost perpetually, and the only thing that keeps him going is his determination to rescue his wife. He's heroic in the least heroic way, with no grand feats, limited by his injury, and relying entirely on his smarts to outwit the cannibals.
Honestly, for me though, Matthew Fox's Brooder is probably the most engaging and interesting character. He's ex-military with a chip on his shoulder brought on by a tragic backstory that's never made a big deal of. For all intents and purposes, he should be the unlikable dick, but instead Fox gives him a charm and worldliness that makes him oddly likable. He never drifts into antagonism despite often holding views and attitudes in opposition to the other three, and while his pride and vanity would make him unpleasant company, they instead give him an edge that puts him at odds with everyone else. Matthew Fox really can act, and do it really well. He offers a better performance than his more esteemed co-stars, and that says a lot considering the company.
Bone Tomahawk also excels in it's more technical aspects as well. Sound design is extremely good, emphasising every moment, no matter how quiet, disturbing, or mundane. When a knife cuts into flesh, you can hear the piercing, the slicing, and bone grinding that takes place. When the wilderness is quiet, the subtle ambiance of birds and breeze gently caresses the background. The lack of a musical score (for the most part) gives these exceptional demonstrations of sound design a chance to be their own thing, and adds all kinds of suspense and intensity to moments that would otherwise be cheapened by music. When someone is suddenly hit with an arrow, phwomph. The unpredictability brought on by the lack of music adds so much.
Bone Tomahawk was a wonderful surprise. I'm not sure I'm in a rush to watch it again, not because of that death scene, but because the second act felt like it dragged maybe a little too long. There's only so long watching a guy limping in pain in the wilderness is entertaining. However, at the very moment I started to feel bored, it changed direction and kicked it up a notch. I give Bone Tomahawk a solid 8/10 for it's fantastic writing, well-executed horror, and acting performances of a lifetime. Would recommend, at least once.
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