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"Bone Tomahawk" managed to evade my radar for the better part of the year until receiving a text from a friend at work who viewed it via a streaming service. On paper, the cast alone whetted my appetite for a solid western, a genre that, frankly, sees a lot of direct-to-video grade-D garbage these days. Written and directed by novelist S. Craig Zahler, "Bone Tomahawk" arrives quietly on Blu-Ray, a week removed from Quentin Tarantino's second entry into the genre, the magnificently filmed in Ultra Panavision "Hateful Eight". Going in an opposite direction from Tarantino's big screen stage production, "Bone Tomahawk" seeks to subvert the viewer's perception and understanding of the modern western by borrowing from the traditional and soaking it in an underlying tale of horror.
Although not overtly in the straight horror genre as "Ravenous", "Bone Tomahawk" is more akin to "The Searchers" meets "The Hills Have Eyes" firmly shot through a postmodern lens that unveils the overt racism the genre was steeped in decades prior. Although Kurt Russell dominates the entire Blu-Ray case as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, he is one element in a vital ensemble made up of Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson. Opening on a somewhat weak note, with a bit of stunt casting featuring Sid Haig and David Arquette as two throat slashing bandits, "Bone Tomahawk" fortunately gets the ball rolling after some well-received character building introducing the viewer to the town of Bright Hope and our principals. After some questionably long time spent with Arthur O'Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) establishing the pair's mutual love and O'Dwyer's badly injured, but mending leg, Lili is taken kidnapped by an unseen force (the same unseen force that slaughter's Sid Haig's character in the opening scene).
What follows for the first two-hours of "Bone Tomahawk" is a very clear homage/riff on "The Searchers" assembling Sheriff Hunt, O'Dwyer, Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) and suave gunslinger Brooder (Matthew Fox in his strongest acting efforts since "Lost" in a role originally intended for Timothy Olyphant) to seek out the "Troglodytes" that kidnapped O'Dwyer's wife. In the establishing of the unseen force of "Troglodytes" as a group shunned by other Native American tribes, Zahler manages to skewer the notion of the generic idea of "Indians" being ominous boogeymen from "The Searchers" as narrow-minded and ignorant. As the film progresses and we learn more of these characters, even knowing the fact that local tribes wish to see the "Troglodytes" stopped as much as the townsfolk of Bright Hope, our cast of characters have many character flaws, chiefly a gunslinger and sherriff who have little respect or compassion for non-White characters.
It's very hard to discuss the final 30 to 45 minutes of "Bone Tomahawk" without delving into spoiler filled territory. All I can say, is that once we feel we really know our small band of heroes, things get very interesting once they enter the sacred ground of the "Troglodytes." It's here that "Bone Tomahawk" strays into incredibly brutal and graphic territory, although cleverly utilizing the viewpoints of our characters to propel very different responses to action. In particular Wilson and Jenkins (who absolutely steals the entire movie from under the rest of a very solid cast, in what I'd argue is an Oscar worthy performance) convey a sense of humanity and moral right that represent a more modern heroic ideal than the stubborn bravado of Russell and Fox's characters, who represent the "John Wayne" archetype quite handedly.
"Bone Tomahawk" is a film that commands rapt attention not only on the first viewing, but subsequent viewings to come. Zahler's script (reportedly a first draft and this does show from time to time) is an interesting beast, but a western through and through. While the cinematography is at times haunting, it can't compare to Tarantino's 70mm masterpiece; that said, in pure genre terms, "Bone Tomahawk" offers a more complete genre experience than "The Hateful Eight" (which I'd classify as a mystery first and foremost) and socially, examines familiar ideals in a meaningful, harrowing fashion. Don't let the quiet release fool you, "Bone Tomahawk" is worth your time and money; one of 2015's best offerings.
The 1080p 2.40:1 transfer is sharp to a major fault in my book. While color reproduction is incredibly artistic and consistent, with the dusty browns of the west broken up by some greys in the first act scenes set in town, one longs for at least some level of film grain or a bit of digital noise to give the film a more gritty look keeping in tune with its thematic atmosphere. The image is on the upper end of the spectrum of detail and sadly, in the third act, the sharpness of the image betrays a few cut corners in the set-design department, giving the film a slightly cheaper look than it deserves. That said, the first 90-minutes of the film still looks fantastic (and really so does the end), offering up a more intimate western setting than usual, while still capturing the scope of our protagonists journey.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master track is definitely more on the atmospheric side of the spectrum than the overly polished transfer. Dialogue is incredibly crisp and warm; of major note is the absolute silence the track offers at times to create a sense of the unknown and dread, allowing for shocking moments to punctuate themselves more clearly via the LFE and surrounds; in particular the film's finale makes great use of the surrounds to create a disorienting effect of our heroes being stalked.
"Bone Tomahawk" features a handful of extras worth a watch. First up is "The Making of Bone Tomahawk" which is interesting, although I could have traded it for a feature-length commentary. Rounding out the extras is a Q&A with the director and principal cast, a deleted scene, and an image gallery.
Truly one of the highlights of 2015, "Bone Tomahawk" remains a reminder of why not all "straight-to-video" fare should be met with a suspicious eye. Ultimately, it's two-hour runtime and slow-to-start story likely kept it out of theaters; hopefully now on Blu-Ray it will be discovered for genre fans old and young and in the process how we view our "classics" will change ever so slightly with our old heroes' flaws exposed more to the light. As a directorial debut, "Bone Tomahawk" makes S. Craig Zahler a name to watch for in the future. As a Blu-Ray release, it's a technically sound presentation. Highly Recommended.