by Calum Macleod
THERE’S a simple pitch for Bone Tomahawk. It’s The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes.
It may not have the scale or depth of the John Wayne/John Ford classic, with the action here taking place over a few days rather than years, but the basic set up is shared by both films — white folks on the frontier are kidnapped by a dangerous band of Native Americans and friends and kinfolk set off to rescue them.
Yet even the real atrocities of the war for the West do not seem to be enough for writer/director S. Craig Zahler.
A graphic scalping is merely the appetiser for a very literal act of butchery so extreme as to be almost surreal.
This potential slur on the indigenous inhabitants of the USA is side stepped by The Professor (Zahn McClarnon), a dapper Native American whose Indian name probably translates as He-Who-Gives-Exposition.
While white men would not distinguish these Troglodytes from his people, he tells the shocked townspeople of the optimistically named Bright Hope, to them they are "a tainted bloodline". The inference for movie watchers is that they have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes' mutant clan or the more inhuman cave dwellers of Neil Marshall’s The Descent than the Sioux or Apache of more convention Westerns.
They still get miffed when someone desecrates their sacred burial ground and when they track down one such transgressor (David Arquette), they also drag along sheriff’s deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the only sober alternative to the town’s drunken doctor, to store away in their larder.
Top billed Kurt Russell has previous form in both horror and western genres, sporting even wilder facial hair than his Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, and makes an authoritative sheriff, a loving husband who will put a bullet into a suspicious character without a thought and who will .
Joining him on his rescue mission are Samantha’s husband Arthur, whose broken leg makes him something of a liability (Patrick Wilson occupying a similar role to his part in Channel 4’s Fargo as a decent everyman figure suddenly confronted by evil), and dapper lady and Indian killer John Brooder (Matthew Fox), who may have his own reasons for joining the hunt.
Best of the bunch though is Richard Jenkins as aging "back up deputy" Chicory. In an earlier age and a gentler film, he might have been played by Gabby Hayes and provides much of the film’s homespun humour, but also proves a brave and loyal comrade in arms when the chips are down.
The journey is not without incident and danger, but it is when the rescue party catch up with their quarry that things get really nasty as Zahler swaps the wide open spaces for claustrophobic canyons and caves as the Troglodytes fully live up to their depraved reputation.
What happens? When a cannibal tribe kidnap a murderous bushwacker who has offended them and a couple of innocents from the town of Bright Hope, the sheriff (Kurt Russell) assembles a small makeshift posse to stage a rescue. Bloodshed ensues.
Best quote? Chicory: "Ain’t this what a back up’s for? To help in an emergency, not to stay back. I’m coming."
Who for? Western fans who aren’t too squeamish, although there is enough blood spilled to keep the gorehounds happy.
Quick review? First time director Craig Zahler serves up an entertaining horror-western hybrid for the stronger of stomach, even if some elements seem over familiar.