Bone Tomahawk Movie Review: Cannibal Horror Western With Kurt Russell Somehow No Good [Fantastic Fest 2015]

BONE-TOMAHAWK-STILL
Kurt Russell and Kurt Russell's hair, pretty much everything good about BONE TOMAHAWK is in this pic. Caliber Media Company

Bone Tomahawk has drummed up an impressive amount of hype with nothing more than a killer concept, evocative title and one or two pictures of Kurt Russell sporting tremendous mutton chops. But now that Bone Tomahawk has finally premiered at Fantastic Fest 2015 it saddens me to say that it completely squanders just about everything.

Bone Tomahawk Movie Review From Fantastic Fest 2015

Nooooooooope…

Opening on an interminable scene featuring David Arquette, Sid Haig and far too many mouthfuls of banter, everything wrong with Bone Tomahawk is there right at the start. The two brigands stumble across a bone shrine ripped straight from a Pet Sematary fan convention. Here is where the troglodyte cannibals, “a spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who’d rape and eat their own mothers,” first appear. The problem is tension, as director S. Craig Zahler makes zero attempt to build dread, let alone horror.

From there the action in Bone Tomahawk turns to the town of Bright Hope, where Buddy (Arquette), inexplicably surviving his brush with the deadly cannibals, soon finds himself wounded and in a jail cell. The pace stays flat as seemingly every person in town (including ones you'll never see again) get their mouthful of pseudo-Deadwood bullshit. 

It’s in Bright Hope where Bone Tomahawk introduces us to old man Chicory (Richard Jenkins), generic lead Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), his wife Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), steely gun-guy John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell and his fantastic hair). The intro for most of the leads is inauspicious, with Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins talking about soup for approximately one thousand minutes. You know those little monologues where characters reveal an anecdote from their past to make them more sympathetic? Richard Jenkin’s Chicory is not a human, but a being of pure dialogue entirely comprised of condensed anecdotes and character quirks. 

For no reason we can discern (it later turns out that David Arquette’s tripping over some rocks at the bone cairn set this all off… though Zahler treats this inciting moment with the same flat un-styling as everything else in Bone Tomahawk) the cannibals come to town, kill an incidental black kid, and kidnap Samantha O’Dwyer.

Much of Bone Tomahawk is Moody, Sheriff Hunt, Old Man Chicory, and Arthur O’Dwyer riding for five days to the cannibal’s Valley of the Starving Man. Here Bone Tomahawk picks up a bit, shearing away the character overload in Bright Hope and at least confining the continued torrent of why-wasn’t-this-cut dialogue to the most capable members of the cast. Still, while this portion of the movie is painless, it’s not exactly thrilling. No effort whatsoever is made to even suggest that the cannibals—presumably mere miles ahead on the same journey—are an ongoing threat.

So does Bone Tomahawk soar when we actually get to those bone tomahawks? While the end of Bone Tomahawk delivers some astoundingly creative gore (seriously, there are two extended bits of violence that will almost make it worthwhile for gorehounds), it never finds anything resembling horror, even in the cannibal lair. Rather than a white-knuckle gunfight in dark caverns—the cowboy Descent the premise promises—Bone Tomahawk’s cowboy vs. cannibals clash feels asleep at the reins.

For one, the cannibals pop up like bad guys in a light-gun arcade game. It seems this tribe of troglodyte cannibals mainly waits around in bushes outside of the cave. The whole cannibal tribe feels under-developed generally, with the set mainly contained to a single, brightly-lit cavern. This feels a little petty, but I can’t let the tribe’s stupid wooden cages go unmentioned, since a baby could kick them open. 

But it would all be okay if Zahler tried for tension. Instead the creative horrors inside the Bone Tomahawk cannibal cave are revealed with a flat matter-of-factness, reducing the experience to a stroll through a carnival haunted house in the bright of day.

Bone Tomahawk has a great premise, some eye-scorching gore, and Kurt Russell in his element. Beyond that it’s an undercooked experience that could have used a few more script drafts and a hell of a lot more directorial panache.

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