Review: Bone Tomahawk

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: After a young woman is kidnapped by a mysterious tribe of possibly inhuman cannibals, a veteran sheriff (Kurt Russell), his grizzled deputy (Richard Jenkins), a borderline-sociopath bounty-hunter (Matthew Fox) and the woman's crippled husband (Patrick Wilson) set out to rescue her.

REVIEW: It's near-tragic that a well-made western like BONE TOMAHAWK, with its high production values, marquee-level cast, and interesting genre-twist, doesn't have a chance at opening in multiplexes nationwide in our new film marketplace. Twenty-or-so years ago, a studio could have easily made a bundle with a movie like this, and with its 2:35:1 scope photography BONE TOMAHAWK really is a movie that belongs on the big screen.

Despite the low-key release, genre fans have got a major treat in-store when BONE TOMAHAWK hits VOD this Friday. Featuring the long-awaited return of Kurt Russell in a lead action role, and boasting some bone-crunching action and ultra-gruesome splatter effects in the final act, this just might be one of the best specialty releases that I've ever seen in quite some some.

Writer-director S. Craig Zahler, who makes his directorial debut, has pulled-off quite a coup in the way he's navigated the genres. This could have easily been a splatter western, but for at least two-thirds of the movie you'd have no idea this was heading in a horrific direction were it not for the violent teaser where two murderers (David Arquette and Sid Haig) get their gory comeuppance by a possibly inhuman tribe. Instead, Zahler has made a real oater in the style of a John Ford or Anthony Mann, with an emphasis on character. The town the early scenes are set-in comes to life through the efforts of a truly amazing supporting cast of character actors, including people like James Tolkan as a lazy piano player, Fred Melamed as a barkeep (his saloon is memorably named 'The Learned Goat'), Kathryn Morris, Sean Young, and even Michael Pare. Most on them only have a scene or two, but like the best character actors they make a huge impression and give the townsfolk real life.

The leads are all exceptionally well-cast. Patrick Wilson is the de-facto every-man protagonist, with Banshee's Lili Simmons playing his kidnapped doctor-wife. In a smart twist, he's given a dangerously infected broken leg he must get around on, putting himself in constant danger. Matthew Fox is also very effective as a dandy-ish bounty-hunter, whose virulent racism offends the men, even though he's given moments of nobility and sacrifice that suggest he's more of an unfortunate product of his time (and the insane racism of the manifest destiny era) than anything else.

Predictably, it's the two vets in the foursome who steal the show. For the first time in quite awhile Kurt Russell is actually a lead, with his sympathetic, veteran sheriff being a tailor-made part that brings to mind his own Wyatt Earp in TOMBSTONE or the types of parts Gary Cooper played in his latter career (by comparison Wilson is very much in the Jimmy Stewart-western every-man mold). Arguably the best of all of them is Richard Jenkins, who mercilessly steals every scene as Russell's best pal and back-up deputy, an ornery old-coot who's a familiar western archetype (the type of part Walter Brennan played in RED RIVER and RIO BRAVO). Jenkins and Russell have incredible chemistry, and it's especially nice that both are full-on leads. This is not another case of a few “names” being brought-in for quickly-shot supporting roles. Both are in virtually every scene.

At 132 minutes, BONE TOMAHAWK is maybe a shade too long, but the extra time really does allow you to relate to the characters and enjoy the excellent performances. By getting attached to them, once the carnage picks up in the final third you'll find yourself extremely invested in their survival. It's also worth noting that the gore is extremely gruesome, with the cannibal tribe committing a murder later-on that's far more brutal than anything in recent splatter flicks like THE GREEN INFERNO (it's worth noting this is going-out without an MPAA rating – it would have certainly gotten an NC-17). Interesting, Zahler has opted against using much music, with none being used at all for the first forty minutes, with only some subtle underscore (composed by Zahler himself and Jeff Herriott) kicking-in now and again.

While I still think a big-screen would have been the best way to enjoy BONE TOMAHAWK, a VOD debut does have the added advantage of convenience and the fact that it's going out in an un-compromised form. In this case, bypassing theatrical is certainly no judgement against the movie's quality. Horror and western fans will have a blast with this one, and hopefully enough people will see it to ensure it the cult following it deserves. And heck – it sure is nice to see Kurt Russell playing a heroic action lead again.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.