There’s a scene in Bone Tomahawk that’s so gruesome that it had me physically recoiling from the screen, averting my eyes in the process. It’s imagery like this that I’ve struggled to shift from my mind ever since, such is its graphic and brutal nature.
Now either Im getting more squeamish with age, or director S. Craig Zahler has successfully managed to get right inside my head there. I suspect it’s a little of both.
Welcome to Bone Tomahawk folks, a particularly twisted take on the classic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ theme.
When shady and mistrustful drifter, Purvis (David Arquette), rolls into the sleepy back water town of Bright Hope, Sheriff Hunt (the very well cast, Kurt Russell) confronts shoots and wounds the man leaving him in need of urgent medical attention. Doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons) duly obliges.
With night fallen, Samantha elects to remain with her by now incarcerated patient to monitor his post-surgery condition, rather than return to her husband Arthur – himself convalescing following a leg fracture. Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) will stand guard over proceedings. In time he will wish he hadn’t.
With the arrival of morning comes the unwelcome realisation that doctor, patient and deputy sheriff have all vanished. A distinctive-headed arrow embedded in the sheriff’s office wall is identified as being a tell-tale sign that this abduction is the work of a troglodyte tribe of cannibalistic Indians.
You see, Purvis (and a now deceased – at the hands of the Indians – accomplice), had unwittingly desecrated the Indians’ sacred burial site and with ‘bone tomahawks’ in hand, they are hell-bent on revenge.
It’s time for Sheriff Hunt to rustle up a rescue party, saddle-up and set about imposing some justice.
Joining Hunt on this mission improbable are Arthur (Samantha’s husband), no nonsense, Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a stubborn old timer, defying his age, refusing to be left out.
Like many a ‘Western’ before it, Bone Tomahawk is a slow-burning affair. Indeed, a five day trek on horseback unavoidably becomes all the more drawn-out and gruelling when the Sheriff and his three cohorts have their horses stolen from right under their noses, forcing them to complete the remainder of their mission on foot. Not the end of the world you’d think, but Arthur’s fractured and increasingly infected leg isn’t helping progress.
On having his hand hacked off, the immaculately groomed, and superbly vain, Brooder, decides that he will strap on dynamite and inflict a suicide mission upon the Indians. “I’m far too vain to go on living looking like this” he declares.
Yes, it’s devilishly dark and humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and as all such elements combine with the film’s increasingly brutal narrative, it left this viewer unsure of whether to shriek in horror and hide behind the sofa, or laugh-out-loud.
Perhaps Monty Python’s ‘Black Knight’ is as good a way as any to summarise the predicament, for no matter how many ‘mere flesh wounds’ are inflicted upon our courageous – bordering on idiotic – rescue party, they refuse to be perturbed, pressing onward, unwavering from their end goal.
It may have a classic B movie air about it, be littered with faults and inconsistencies and somehow achieve simultaneously both the humorous and repulsive, but there’s absolutely no doubting that Bone Tomahawk is at once very real, gritty and highly memorable, but most crucially of all… enormously entertaining.
A splendid piece of cult movie-making nonsense if ever I’ve seen one.