'Bone Tomahawk': Fantastic Fest Review

A handsome Western with horror overtones.

Kurt Russell leads a quartet of men on an against-all-odds rescue mission.

A rescue-mission Western with overtones of horror just strong enough to make it a natural at this fear-embracing 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 auds 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. Trophy skulls mark their territory, and once inside their cave we see things far more gory than most Westerns would dare to show.

Which is not to say our heroes will necessarily make it to this remote cave dwelling. Arthur's injury and his hard-driving determination to catch up to his wife's captors are a bad match, jeopardizing the mission even before mishaps on the trail make it all but impossible. The foursome's progress is slowed enough to let the film settle into observing them, sometimes forgetting the reasons for their journey long enough to enjoy the group's old-fashioned dynamics. Jenkins in particular is self-consciously playing more a type than a character here, the near-worthless old sidekick who cracks bad jokes and is desperate to feel useful to his stoic boss. Fox preens arrogantly in his creamy suit, contemptuous of companions who haven't seen his share of deadly action. Though the film stretches out long enough to impress us with the difficulty of their journey, the four actors ensure that the two hours or so we spend in their company aren't dull.

Design elements and photography are strong, especially considering what was likely a tight budget, but a key ingredient here is the subtle score credited to Zahler and Jeff Herriott, neither of whom has scored a feature before. Avoiding the usual widescreen grandeur, the sober music portends a noble effort that might come to naught; however repellent the enemy may be, it suggests there will be little glory in facing them.

Production company: Caliber Media Company
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons
Director-screenwriter: S. Craig Zahler
Producers: Jack Heller, Dallas Sonnier
Executive producers: Scott Fort, David Gilbery, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Jon D. Wagner
Director of photography: Benji Bakshi
Production designer: Fredy Waff
Costume designer: Chantal Filson
Editors: Greg D'Auria, Fred Raskin
Music: Jeff Herriott, S. Craig Zahler
Casting director: Matthew Maisto

No rating, 131 minutes