BONE TOMAHAWK: Team Review – Fantastic Fest 2015

Closing out Fantastic Fest 2015 with a Western starring none other than Kurt Russell himself was a stroke of genius on the part of the festival’s programmers. It allowed for a truly spectacular cinematic capper on a week of thrilling genre films, and simultaneously offered a great excuse for the closing night party to take place in an old western town on the outskirts of Austin. But enough about its programming slot… Bone Tomahawk is a classic, ensemble Western with a unique genre element thrown into the mix to set it apart and secure its place in the annals of the “never seen that before” hall of fame.

IMDb Synopsis:
Four men set out in the Wild West to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.

Because the whole Cinapse team who attended the festival closed out their fest with this film, we thought it might be fun to review the film collectively, with a bit of a free-for-all approach. Anyone can jump in at any time and rebut, concur, or bludgeon a fellow teammates’ thoughts of the film. So let’s kick this off.

Team, shall we begin by discussing just who the hell this S. Craig Zahler is and how he was able to lock in such an amazing ensemble cast for his debut feature as a director?

Jon Partridge:
I’ll be frank. I knew nothing of Bone Tomahawk before it was announced as the closing night film. But hearing it was a cannibalistic western with Kurt Russell piqued my interest. The rest of the cast, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins, can all be great too. Having seen the film, it’s totally an ensemble character piece and the ‘how’ they were locked into the film is likely down to that focus: the material was great. Gritty, smart and fun. Put that in the hands of these talented gents and it was going to be something special.

Brendan Foley:
I’d been psyched for Bone Tomahawk for months. Firstly, Kurt Russell on a horse. That buys a ticket right there. And I’d also heard so many whisperings about the grisly sort of insanity contained within the script that I just had to find out if the horror-western could be as good and as crazy as people were saying. So imagine my surprise at seeing just how, well, traditional a film Bone Tomahawk ended up being. The gore is much more elaborate and protracted, but this tonally fits right alongside the Vietnam/post-Vietnam era Westerns of the 60s and 70s. Was anyone else surprised by this?

My only preconception going in was hearing that it was slow, particularly towards the beginning, but frankly I didn’t find that. Those quieter parts allowed for some of the best moments in the film; character showcases which the four main actors took full advantage of. As Westerns go, I agree with Brendan that it felt very classical, only ramping up the horror towards the end, but even then maintaining that grit you associate with the genre.

David Delgado:
I heard the same thing as Jon: that it was slow, with an explosive ending. The explosive ending was fantastic, for sure, but I found the rest of the movie equally as excellent if not more so. Most of this is achieved through Richard Jenkins’ comedic presence and how well he bounces off the other actors. He’s a ton of fun and drew massive laughs in the theater about a dozen times.

That isn’t to discount everyone else – Matthew Fox is easily the best I’ve ever seen him (I’m not sure that’s saying much, but he’s really great in this, with spot on casting for his role). Kurt Russell plays Kurt Russell, which is amazing as always. Rounding out the group of man’s men is Patrick Wilson, who is the weakest of the bunch, but is still solid.

The only thing that I felt was actively negative and harmful to the movie was the cinematography – it’s frequently nice looking but there’s a thick digital sheen over the whole thing that is incredibly alienating in Westerns in particular. Some of the framing you know should look warm and beautiful but it just doesn’t translate, and the whole time I was wishing it looked even 1/10th as beautiful as what Tarantino has been doing recently in Django Unchained and the upcoming Hateful Eight.

Ed Travis:
The ensemble aspect of Bone Tomahawk was indeed an unexpected joy for me and I agree with the rest of the team that not only did I not find the film slow at any point, but rather I felt the cracking and witty dialog, along with the methodical pacing, set up said ensemble with some real dimensionality, which was ultimately what the film was all about. Men on a mission. Men that I cared about, with real personalities, pasts, and vested interests in the mission at hand. Matthew Fox’s Mr. Brooder contains a certain complexity as a man who takes joy in killing Native Americans (which is repugnant, and the film agrees), but who’s also charming, capable, and may have much more to him than meets the eye. Richard Jenkins’ Chicory is playing the old man version of someone we all know in our own lives: the talker. This widower can’t shut his mouth in the presence of mortal danger; but we come to love him for it. Patrick Wilson’s Arthur O’Dwyer is perhaps the plainest of the protagonists, but his dogged determination to rescue his wife from what may be literal monsters, and with a severely injured leg to boot, is ultimately extremely compelling. And then you’ve got old Sheriff Franklin Hunt as played by the mustache of Kurt Russell. Hard, respected, proven; Hunt is on this mission because it is his job, and because he’s simply a decent man who takes his relationships with the others seriously. Hunt’s high level of character is the glue that holds these disparate men together and which compels the audience to go on this mission until the shocking and certainly perilous end. There’s a camaraderie between these men which transcends mere entertainment value or homage to classical Westerns and touches on something deeply human… even as a genre mash up hits the third act head on.

Alex Williams:
Calling the film slow is laughable when compared to other Westerns, especially The Searchers, which this film definitely draws from. It’s a bit long in the tooth, but never boring, and every moment feels essential. Once the characters arrive at the cannibals’ lair, you have to want them to survive – which makes the violence they experience terrifying on a primal level.

The sheer brutality of this film is kind of insane, and there’s one scene in particular that’s the most horrifically violent thing I saw all week at Fantastic Fest, which is no small feat. However, it never feels unnecessary or exploitative, and the careful work the film put into setting up the characters only makes the numerous injuries they suffer all the more effective.

But we’re all getting along a bit too well, so I’ve got to disagree with Brendan’s claim that the film is ultimately traditional. While it certainly follows a familiar arc, I felt that the film really follows its own path in a few key ways, particularly in who it casts as the protagonist. When you think “Kurt Russell cannibal Western,” you assume Russell is the hero, but the sneaky hero of this film is Patrick Wilson’s character, a crippled man who insists on coming along on the rescue mission after the cannibals take his wife.

The dude limping along behind Kurt Russell (and his glorious mustache) is a pretty atypical hero for this type of film, and in a more traditional Western, he would be the first to die. The film’s violence is also much less glorified than your typical Western, and even what would normally qualify as the big “hero moment” is pretty unglamorous and messy here. The deaths in this film are almost all painful and shocking, and there are several moments that make me wince when I think about them, the worst of which involves a searing hot flask placed somewhere it really shouldn’t be.

Yep, it’s quite brutal. In fact, Bone Tomahawk had a single death scene that was harder to watch than anything else I saw at Fantastic Fest…so you know it’s good. It is messy and gritty, as a Western should be. I agree with David, being a little more refined visually like the classics or the recent Slow West may have helped cement the film’s status, but it’s still a blast, featuring some great characters and their banter. It’s a film that is likely to please Western fans and genre film fans alike, how often can you say that?

Hopefully we’ll be able to say it a little more often in the future. The Western as a genre has been cooling its heels for many years, reserved only for intentionally self-aware throwbacks. Mainstream cinema has only intermittently gone back to this well, to middling box office and critical success. So here’s hoping that Bone Tomahawk’s gleeful merging of genres, and the sheer level of scope and carnage that gets pulled off for what was reportedly a fairly paltry budget, gets a whole new wave of aficionados enthusiastic about heading out into the dirt and bringing the Old West back to life.

And if we’re lucky, each and every last fucking one of them will bring Kurt Russell along for the ride.

I think I’m supposed to say more here and get to wrapping things up, but you all already nailed basically everything I would have said. I guess I’ll just add that it feels so good to let a movie surprise you and upset your expectations. Bone Tomahawk sounded like another Cowboys & Aliens, but it surpassed this previous Western Mashup film in every regard.

It sounds like the whole team dug the film and would recommend it. I know it lands as my third favorite film I saw at Fantastic Fest and will likely be one I evangelize and watch repeatedly over the course of my days. That said, with all the analysis we’ve given it, and all the praise we’ve heaped upon it, there’s no doubt that this is a challenging film to sell to 2015 America. We’ve argued that it is largely a traditional Western in many ways. This isn’t exactly a genre that has been lighting the zeitgeist on fire these last several years, although I’d argue it is due for a revival, and maybe this film and The Hateful Eight could breathe a little life into the bone dry Western. Then on top of the Western elements, you’ve got the bone-crunchingly (in more ways than one) brutal final act, filled with the same rapport and character rhythms of the rest of the film, just with a lot more gore and troglodytes. Only time will tell how the general public will receive this spectacular debut from writer/director to watch S. Craig Zahler.

The film opens in limited release on October 23rd and the Cinapse team not only recommends it, but highly encourages you support this weird and wonderful little gem.

And We’re Out.

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis