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Bone Tomahawk

With “Bone Tomahawk,” director S. Craig Zahler has set out to make a traditional Western in a nontraditional way.  First he has to deal with the sexism and racism of his premise – this is a movie about a bunch of cowboys out to rescue a damsel in distress from a band of bloodthirsty savages. He does that by first making the damsel extremely capable and probably smarter than her rescuers, and then by making the bloodthirsty savages something beyond Indians – even the Native people of the area fear and avoid them. It’s not even clear if they’re actually human – in some ways they resemble the aliens in “Predator” more than homo sapiens.  If they are of this world, they’re the brown-skinned equivalent of the hillbillies in “Deliverance.”  All the same, I’m not really sure, given the history of Natives in cinema, that it’s enough to say “not ALL Native tribes eat their captors – just this particularly savage band” – but, well, it’s an attempt.

Patrick Wilson plays a cowboy whose wife (Lilli Simmons) is kidnapped while she’s taking care of a desperado, shot in the leg by the sheriff (Kurt Russell.)  Then they all disappear – kidnapped by a mysterious band of cave dwellers, identified by friendly Native Zahn McClarnon (from “Longmire”) as “troglodytes.” Russell, his deputy, and a gunslinger in a fancy suit (Matthew Fox) go after the troglodytes, with Wilson hobbling along, refusing to be left behind.

Zahler does a solid job of capturing the humor and color of some of the best Westerns, movies like “Unforgiven” and “The Wild Bunch.” I really enjoyed “Bone Tomawhawk” up until a point. Richard Jenkins’ supporting performance as a bumbling back-up deputy is fantastic, and Kurt Russell is just as good as he was in “Tombstone” – in fact, his facial hair makes him even look the same. The dialogue is enjoyably funny and offbeat, and the characters develop a palpable sense of chemistry and camarederie as the movie ambles its way along.  Many of the middle scenes are very good, and it’s not as stiff or stylistic as some of the other indie Westerns I’ve seen recently, like “Slow West” or “Dead Man’s Burden.” I’ll be curious to see what Zahler does next; hopefully, it won’t have some of the issues that crop up in this movie.

Because when it approaches its climactic battle, “Bone Tomahawk” suddenly turns into a horribly violent and grisly film, well beyond what I’d expect from a western and into the realm of exploitation films. There are definitely things on the screen I didn’t need to see. Add that to the fact that I’m not really convinced that this movie goes far enough to avoid the “bloodthirsty Indians” stereotype of so many westerns, and I have to recommend that, in spite of its many admirable qualities, “Bone Tomahawk” be a movie you avoid.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke, Native & Indigenous Cinema.

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