Kurt Russell stars in the violent western drama about a search party pursuing townspeople abducted by cannibalistic tribesmen.
You can call Bone Tomahawk a traditional western with horror film elements, or a horror flick outfitted in Wild West accouterments. Either way you choose, based on critical and audience response to the movie’s world premiere screening at the genre-friendly Fantastic Fest in Austin, it looks like you may also have to call the movie a big hit.
Set to open October 23 at theaters and drive-ins everywhere, Bone Tomahawk is the handiwork of S. Craig Zahler, an author of acclaimed western novels (A Congregation of Jackals, Wraiths of the Broken Land) who directed from his own original screenplay. This is his debut effort as a filmmaker, but there’s nothing on screen to suggest he’s anything but a seasoned cinematic storyteller with a passionate appreciation for classic westerns, and the unaffected confidence one usually finds only in a director with several notches on his gun… er, credits on his resume.
Cowboys & Indians reader favorite Kurt Russell heads an impressive cast that also includes Matthew Fox (of TV’s Lost), Patrick Wilson (William Travis in 2004’s The Alamo), recent Emmy Award winner Richard Jenkins (Olive Kitteridge) — and Zahn McClarnon, AKA Officer Mathias of Longmire, in the brief but key role of a Native American townsman who warns the protagonists that only ignorant palefaces would think the abductors they’re pursuing are Indians.
Bone Tomahawk rocked the house Thursday at Fantastic Fest, with many audience members offering full-throated roars of approval during the closing credits, and continuing to express their enthusiasm during a post-screening Q&A with Zahler, Fox, Jenkins and Wilson.
And then the reviews started rolling in.
John DeFore of The Hollywood Reporter raved:
"A rescue-mission Western with overtones of horror just strong enough to make it a natural at [Fantastic Fest], S. Craig Zahler's Bone Tomahawk watches as "four doomed men ride out" to rescue a kidnapped woman. Fanboy icon Kurt Russell leads a strong cast here, and he alone would be sufficient to draw attention among genre diehards. But a surprising level of gravitas marks this picture as one that isn't content with a B-movie base hit; while a commercial home run is very unlikely, Bone has a stronger appeal to mainstream [audeinces] than many recent Old West revivals and is cause for interest in first-timer Zahler's future efforts.
"Russell, sporting the same leonine look we'll see soon in The Hateful Eight, plays the sheriff of Bright Hope, a small town where Patrick Wilson's Arthur O'Dwyer was set to start a great job before he broke his leg in a home-repair mishap. When Mrs. O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons) and two men are abducted by a mysterious group of raiders, these two set off to rescue them with Sheriff Hunt's "backup deputy" Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a vain Indian-hunter named Brooder (Matthew Fox).
"In a perfunctory move to immunize the film against charges of racism, it informs us early on that only a know-nothing white man would view the kidnappers as Indians. These fierce cannibals are "something else entirely," a spoiled bloodline other tribes refer to as troglodytes. And they deserve the monstrous name: covered in white powder and disfigured with animal tusks piercing their skin, they communicate only via an inhuman howl."
And Guy Lodge of Variety agreed:
"Cowboys-and-Indians antics have rarely been more antic than they are in Bone Tomahawk, a gleefully grisly genre gazpacho that matches a rousing sense of Old West derring-do to a comic sensibility as dark as chewing tobacco — and at least as much of an acquired taste. But for those with a head for loopily discursive humor (not to mention a stomach for some inspired grotesquerie), S. Craig Zahler’s debut feature will come as a most violent delight. Winking explicitly to The Searchers with its ostensibly classical tale of four mismatched frontiersmen out to rescue abducted townsfolk from the clutches of a savage (and emphatically fictitious) native tribe, Bone Tomahawk may seem over-indulgent at 132 minutes, yet it’s the wayward digressions of Zahler’s script — navigated with palpable enjoyment by an expert, Kurt Russell-led ensemble — that are most treasurable in a film that commits wholeheartedly to its own curiosity value… .
"The journey would certainly feel longer without the spry interplay between the actors: All four are in terrific form here, savoring Zahler’s salty verbal peculiarities as they riff loosely on such genre stereotypes as the jaded lawman, the wholemeal hero and the village idiot. Russell, so underused of late, makes a stern claim on Western terrain he’s soon to revisit in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight; Wilson and Fox, the latter playing pleasingly against type, wittily inhabit reverse sides of the same alpha coin. It’s Jenkins, meanwhile, whose winningly woebegone mien and sneakily perfect timing prove the value of the off-topic writing: One might think a lengthy disquisition on flea circuses would be prime cutting-room fodder in a tense revenge thriller, but Jenkins’ delivery proves otherwise."