BONE TOMAHAWK: S. Craig Zahler manifests his destiny as a director.

Bone Tomahawk

Two bandits are going about their business of killing and robbing some travelers a bit too close to a sacred burial ground belonging to an extremely aggressive group of Native Americans with, let’s say, cannibalistic tendencies. The surviving outlaw flees to a small town called Bright Hope. The local sheriff (Kurt Russell) shoots the bandit in the leg -which appears to be his regular MO- and has the local doctor Samatha (a role for Lili Simmons of Banshee fame) fetched to attend to his wound. She’s married to Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who’s injured, recovering from a broken leg. In the morning the sheriff is notified that a black stable boy has been found dead, severely mutilated. When they check the jail they find an arrow, Samatha, the bandit and a young deputy are missing from the jail.
A four man posse -consisting of Sheriff Hunt, his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) with potential signs of early alzheimer’s, Brooder (Matthew Fox) a notorious ‘indian killer’ and womanizer (who at one stage had an eye on the town’s doctor) with some vanity issues and the injured husband Arthur- is formed to get them back out of the hands of the tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers or troglodytes, a word which is the basis for one of the countless comedic scenes in the film. The cannibals bare somewhat of a resemblance to the Predator creature in the 1986 Schwarzenegger vehicule (and many of its sequels).

This typical and fairly simple premise and character set-up could have resulted in a straightforward, lean and mean western. Writer director (and musician) S. Craig Zahler had other plans, he’s opted for a slow paced rhythm, with a lot of riding and campfire scenes leaving plenty of opportunity for character moments and loads of comic relief, many scenes playing out in long takes with little camera movement. The character of Chicory played by Richard Jenkins is clearly an homage to similar comic relief roles by character actors such as Will Rogers in many a John Ford film or of Walter Brennan in countless Howard Hawks films. Where the humor in the films of Ford and Hawks now often feels dated as it’s too much ‘broad comedy’ (at least for my taste) the dialogues by Zahler constantly strike the right chords even though a lot of the time it has an oldfashioned feel to it. Not that the other actors are less than great but Jenkins really has the star part and steals many a scene.

Zahler’s reputation and script was able to attract a lot of star quality for his low-budget debut, all willing to work for scale. The film was shot on a shoestring budget of 1,8 million dollars on pre-existing sets on the Paramount Ranch for 21 days. After the shoot Kurt Russell almost went straight to The Hateful Eight set, he clearly kept the same hairstyle and beard.
The film also has a lot of interesting actors (rnaging from cult actors to former glories) in minor parts . There’s Zahn McClarnon (of Fargo Season 2 fame, reteaming with Patrick Wilson) -who in an original take on the typical Native American scout role- informs the posse where they can find the tribe but wisely declines to go along.
David Arquette (deputy Dewey in the Scream films) and Sid Haig (o.a. Jack Hill regular including the Pam Grier vehicules o.a. Coffy, Foxy Brown, played a cameo as the judge in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, and more recently Rob Zombie’s House of  1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) as the bandits.
Woody Allen and Coen brothers fans may well recognise Fred Melamed as the saloon owner Clarence (Sy Abelman in A Serious Man, and one of the abductors/writers in Hail, Caesar!).
Michael Paré as as Mr. Wallington in the saloon scene who almost became an A-lister in the mid eighties via Eddie and the Cruisers, and Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, and has since 2000 acted in almost every Uwe Boll film. And Sean Young (Blade Runner, No Way Out) as the mayor’s wife.

For some Zahler may at times be lingering too much. But then we would have missed such wonderful scenes such as the one with the (tiny) mayor who for whatever reasons is being completely ignored by Sheriff Hunt or the one showing the nightly encounter and treatment of a couple of Mexicans (“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny.”)  For others the extremely horrific outbursts of violence in the final act might be too much to take. This blending of western, horror and comedy that lasts for almost 2 hours and fifteen minutes some may find to be a bit indulgent, I liked it a lot and it was one of the many highlights at this years Offscreen festival.

If you have a dark sense of humor you’ll definitely have to check out the below clip: Cabin Fever and Bone Tomahawk: Windpipes and black humor.

Jan Bollen

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