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Bone Tomahawk

Year: 2015
Production Co: Calibre Media Company
Director: S Craig Zahler
Writer: S Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, Sid Haig

I saw trailers and was offered screeners from the distributor when this film came out and wasn't much interested (I never really am in Westerns), but I read something about it not scrimping on blood and coming from S Craig Zahler, the director of Brawl in Cell Block 99 and a guy who revels in liberal splashes of claret, so decided to give it a go.

If you're hoping for Bloodsucking Freaks-level gore you might be a bit disappointed – there's only really one scene that's enough to make you squirm in your seat – but it's an effective enough road/rescue movie.

The town sheriff, Hunt (Kurt Russell) is a no-nonsense feller aided by his deputy, the slightly milquetoast Chicory (Richard Jenkins). Elsewhere in town is Arthur, the rancher recovering from a broken leg, and his pretty young wife Samantha (Lili Simmons). Samantha, a doctor, is called to the sheriff's station to treat a blow-in, Purvis (David Arquette) whom Hunt doesn't trust. We know from the opening scene Purvis and an accomplice of his made their living robbing and murdering travellers, but with his friend butchered when the pair were attacked, Purvis has lit out to town, buried his loot and tried to blend in.

The problem is Chicory saw him burying the stash and Hunt wants to know why he's there and where he's going. Purvis snaps under the sheriff's scrutiny in the saloon, there's a scuffle, and Hunt shoots Purvis in the leg, which put him in jail with his injury.

The sheriff leaves Samantha there with his captive and another deputy, Nick, but that night a local stablehand is brutally murdered and when Hunt comes back to work the next morning Purvis, Samantha and the deputy are nowhere to be found. Hunt's Native American advisor fears the troglodytes are responsible – a fearsome local band of injuns who eat human flesh, kill indiscriminately and who it's hinted at might even be supernatural.

Hunt, Chicory and another local, Brooder (Matthew Fox) form a posse to go on the trail of the missing townsfolk, with Arthur insisting on coming along despite his broken leg.

They hit the trail, mindful not only about the cannibalistic savages hunting them but the opportunistic criminals like Purvis was make their way throughout the bush looking for victims to loot and kill. One such attack leaves the men without their horses and with no means to travel except on foot, so they leave Arthur behind and press on. They reach the valley of the troglodytes and things go from bad to worse when they're quickly outflanked and outgunned, Hunt and Chicory taken prisoner and thrown in makeshift cells inside the villainous natives' homes in caves.

Samantha and Nick are already captive, telling an awful story about how Purvis has been butchered and consumed. We quickly see what the troglodytes, their skin caked with dried mud and making them look even more demonic, are capable off when they drag Nick out of his cell, strip him naked, hold him upside and down and cut him literally in half from his balls on down to disembowel and eat him. Needless to say, the stakes to escape get a touch higher.

Although we've written Arthur off by this stage he struggles into the valley, terrified because of the otherworldly keening whistle the nameless tribe makes, a sound he discovers after he kills one is made possible with what look like the vertebrae of their victims lodged in their throats. He uses it to cover his approach and finds his way inside where they can all only hope the bad guys don't come back hungrier than before.

One interesting sociopolitical note struck me about the relationship between the white heroes and the Native American antagonists, similar to what I felt while watching The Revenant. At a certain point filmmakers moved on from the 'savage' depiction of other races and peoples and you'd never have seen a minority villain vanquished by whites.

But then it was post-modern to do so, and images that wanted to capture the brutality of another time could be found in prestigious movies like The Revenant. Bone Tomahawk isn't at all a prestige movie, in fact like Brawl in Cell Block 99 it borders on exploitation, but we live in a new, new time where we've now passed the political correctness of the post-'savages' outlook.

Having said all that I'm sure Zahler didn't mean for any race relations subtext, especially the way the troglodytes are portrayed almost as ghosts or monsters with their lack of language other than a scary high pitched whistle, their bloodthirsty nature and their grey pallor. It's just a romp in the Western genre and if you like cowboy flicks or blood and guts, it's pretty effective fare.

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