bone tomahawk

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Genre: Horror Western

Release: 2015

If “horror western” reads as redundant, it’s because it is. Medieval medicine, nonstop horse manure, no running water; the American frontier was horrific. To add subhuman cannibals kidnapping some townsfolk whose only hope of survival is a lightly armed quartet of senior citizens, criminals, and a crippled cowboy make an already nihilistic genre more challenging. BONE TOMAHAWK, the first feature from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, is not the midnight movie the bonkers premise promises. Instead, expect a languid, 132-minute long mosey into the depths of Hell on Earth.

bone tomahawk burial ground

Seems like a burial ground to leave alone

Both a critique and celebration of male hubris, BONE TOMAHAWK’s goal of being a revisionist western can’t manage to avoid being undercut. The cannibalistic Troglodytes that prey on the cast are said time and time again to have no affiliation with the local Native American tribes, a unique narrative twist and a transparently shrewd move in a politically correct modern America, yet by portraying another non-white group as thoughtless savages, there’s no eradication of the genre’s infamous stigma; it’s just a passing of the rock.

bone tomahawk beach fun

Some kinky fun at the beach

To capture the expanse of the Paramount Ranch, the sinister hills and valleys dwarfing the sheriff’s rescue team, Zahler opts for the wide, a move that sabotages the picture during its interior scenes. Shot in weightless, unconvincing sets, the wide angles expose the thin-walled phoniness. The tragically flat digital cinematography doesn’t help, making a film about the grueling loss of life look positively lifeless. What a shame to have assembled such an impressive cast, led by the reliable Kurt Russell (whose likeness will hopefully resemble more than a cardboard cutout this December in Tarantino’s THE HATEFUL EIGHT), journey on in what resembles a college thesis film.

bone tomahawk hateful eight

Many mothers were disappointed when they learned that their children were not, in fact, extras on a Tarantino film

Transforming the malaise of the old American west into an existential dread, the slow creep of death gains ground on trudging cowpoke footsteps. A lack of music and muted shot choices test the viewers, inviting them into the perpetual boredom of a lifestyle in an isolated, turn-of-the-century desert town. Though this can be read as a jeering knock on the film’s entertainment value (and yeah, it takes over an hour to get going), the immersion it grants is remarkable. When guts are spilled in the final act, the grueling deaths of characters that viewers have spent one hundred minutes with, reveling in their rich dialogue and chemistry, hit hard; even harder thanks to the exceptional practical makeup effects, making some of BONE TOMAHAWKS’s deaths so brutal it seems like snuff. Though violence is utilized sparingly, this is not for the faint of heart. Faults aside, there’s enough to set BONE TOMAHAWK apart to warrant a watch.

Verdict: Recommend

Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a junior film production major at Chapman University who acts as guest contributor for Crossfader on the side: what a success story.

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