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“BONE TOMAHAWK” (Film Review)

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To be honest, it’s a bit of a surprise that the western and horror genres don’t collide more frequently, considering the high-concept mythology of era-appropriate folk tales and the seedy, terrifying reality behind the myths. One could likely chalk up the lack of horror-westerns due to the commercial viability of both genres, and others could attribute it to the need for practical effects on both accounts. Luckily, BONE TOMAHAWK proves that an effective mash-up between horror stories and western aesthetics is more than possible, even if the final product settles for efficiency over excellency.

With a largely clever script, BONE TOMAHAWK follows an unlikely band of heroes set out to rescue some missing people captured by a cave-bound tribe of natives known as ‘troglodytes.’ Comprised of the no-nonsense sheriff, a jaded gunslinger, an injured Civil War veteran and an eccentric elderly deputy, these four men set out against time, treacherous terrain and even their own interests while riding out. However, soon our traveling protagonists find themselves face to face with the horrific reality behind their situation as they learn just how savage these natives can be.

Make no mistake: BONE TOMAHAWK is a very subversive western, even if it largely hides its horror save for a moment or two until the third act. Sporting an incredibly impressive cast (many of whom get just a flicker of screentime), the film decides to drive its film via content and character as opposed to visuals, at least until the horror begins to take hold. And when the horror takes hold, BONE TOMAHAWK is unflinching, offering several jaw-dropping FX moments that is guaranteed to make even the strongest stomach a bit uneasy.

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However, the desire to make BONE TOMAHAWK a more subversive product sometimes leads to some problems, particularly the fact that the film nearly completely lacks an interesting visual atmosphere. While the Western genre is one known for sharp images, BONE TOMAHAWK goes for the opposite, choosing flat, static shots for the most part which captures its core cast but sucks any sense of energy out of the frame. Furthermore, certain pacing choices hurt TOMAHAWK in a big bad way- a leg dressing scene is nearly repeated in long and agitating manner while a letter reading scene will force many eyes towards watches, but these issues are also ones that could have been fixed by a more interested and confident eye. While one might be quick to blame director of photography Benji Bakshi, the horror-driven visuals of the last act speak towards a directorial choice in the manner, as first-time director S. Craig Zahler’s mostly-writing background would certainly explain the decision to focus on dialogue over cinematography.

Yet if there’s anything Zahler does prove with BONE TOMAHAWK, it’s that he knows how to direct actors, playing to the strengths of some actors while beautifully casting against type for others. The supporting cast of the film is made up of a rogue’s gallery of incredible character actors, including Sid Haig, David Arquette, Michael Pare, Sean Young, Jamison Newlander, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, James Tolkan and Evan Jonigkeit, all of whom get a (sometimes literally) moment to shine. Meanwhile, Lili Simmons is exceptional as the female lead of the film, who truly gets to shine in the film’s third act. But BONE TOMAHAWK’s four leads are front and center, and each do an amazing job: Kurt Russell proves why he’s still a star, Richard Jenkins revives a sadly forgotten western archetype, Patrick Wilson sells his determination and pain, and Matthew Fox nearly steals the show as a haunted and xenophobic gunslinger whose paranoia and guilt perpetuates his own peril.

Overall, BONE TOMAHAWK is a damn good movie, yet sadly, it’s just shy of being a damn great movie. Zahler’s direction towards his actors is pitch perfect, and his brilliant script is as compelling as it is chilling, even if it comes at the cost of making a film that’s engaging cinematically. But above everything else, BONE TOMAHAWK will give you the cannibal vs. cowboy brutality you’re paying for, which is a surprisingly satisfying feeling compared to its contemporaries in both genres

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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