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The Best New Movie You’ve Never Heard Of

October 25, 2015

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There’s something seriously wrong with our cinematic distribution system when dreck like The Last Witch Hunter and Jem and the Holograms comes out on more than 5,000 screens combined (and bombs), and gems like Meadowland and Bone Tomahawk receive only token theatrical releases simultaneous with Video on Demand availability. What’s that, you say? You haven’t heard of Meadowland and Bone Tomahawk? For my review of the former, click here. And for the latter, read on.

I recently did a Screen Actors Guild Foundation Q&A with the great character actor Richard Jenkins (click here to view it), and intrigued by the title, I asked him about Bone Tomahawk. “Oh, I think that’s going to be something,” he told me. And it is something—something wildly original and thrilling. I suppose you could say it’s derivative of Tarantino (or, more accurately, Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn), John Carpenter and John Ford, but hey, there are a lot worse directors from which one could crib. It’s a horror Western mashup that hits its target with pinpoint precision.

Kurt Russell, fusing his work in previous films as disparate as Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone and Death Proof, stars as Frank Hunt (great name), the sheriff of an Old West town ironically named Bright Hope. After a drifter (David Arquette, well-cast) disappears from his jail cell along with the local deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and the wife (Banshee‘s Lili Simmons) of a hobbled foreman (Patrick Wilson), Hunt heads out with a posse. Accompanied by the limping husband, his back-up deputy (the aforementioned Jenkins, eerily channeling Gabby Hayes) and an Indian-killing racist dandy (Matthew Fox, the only actor in the cast who seems utterly lost), Hunt tracks down a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes, and that’s when it really starts to get gory.

For the first 90 of its 132 minutes, Bone Tomahawk plays like a fairly straight-shooting Western: The Searchers enlivened by Pulp Fiction-al dialogue (Jenkins and Russell’s banter about how to read a book in a bathtub without getting it wet rivals John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s classic “Royale with Cheese” scene). The resurrection of such seemingly abandoned Hollywood cult figures as Sean Young, Michael Pare and James Tolkan only adds to the Tarantino-esque feel.

But once the hunting party encounters the cave-dwelling killers, first-time director S. Craig Zahler (whose only previous writing credit was 2011’s Asylum Blackout, which I must now see immediately) gives the film a terrifying frisson all its own. Be warned: The violence is graphic, beyond even what we see on a weekly basis on The Walking Dead. (Scalping is just the beginning.) But because Zahler has spent so much time letting us get to know the characters—this is a film with an admirably measured pace, and one that’s not afraid to let silence speak for itself—you actually care about whether they become human meals.

Zahler is a talent to watch, and to listen to; in addition to writing and directing the film, he also co-wrote its stirring score, including an old-fashioned Western theme song, “Four Doomed Men Rode Out.” The fact that Bone Tomahawk is not readily available for the vast majority of Americans to see on a movie-theater screen—well, that’s a bone that truly sticks in my throat.

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