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(CANCELED) The sparse, unforgiving “Bone Tomahawk” is more than its most notorious scene

Editor’s note: UW Cinematheque has canceled screenings through April 12, including this one.

Saturday, March 14, 4070 Vilas Hall, 7 p.m., free. Info

Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson star in 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, a bare-bones horror-Western that has no qualms about depictions of brutality. Matthew Fox, David Arquette, and Lili Simmons round out a strong cast and anchor a bleak tale that follows an intrepid band of would-be rescuers in the 1890s after two community members are abducted by cave-dwelling cannibals. Fortunately, the film’s dedication to accuracy and its clear presence of mind allow it to take the “cannibalistic native” issue from a potentially gross trope to effective through-line, balancing it with a strong role for Zahn McClarnon, who imbues his role as “The Professor” with the kind of hard-earned feeling that’s turned him into one of today’s strongest character actors. 

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Tense and unnerving from start to finish, S. Craig Zahler’s film (screening here to kick off a short UW Cinematheque series on the director’s work) operates with precision. Detractors have called out the film’s 132-minute run time but most, if not all, of those seconds are well spent on critical details that elevate the material. Whether it’s establishing the endless, vast expanse of its setting or cutting to and away from where the action takes place to build tension, there’s a viable purpose. Bone Tomahawk also gets a strong emotional assist from its original score, which is comprised of small, string-led sections composed by Zahler and Wisconsin-based Jeff Herriott (of Bell Monks).

Spending most of the film’s opening stretch in psychological thriller mode, Zahler stokes uncertainty by assigning each member of the rescue party various traits and motives that run counter to the others’. On their journey, small actions and events lead to a growing unease among the group, culminating with a series of betrayals and acknowledgments, repeatedly shifting the focal point away from the end goal and towards what proves to be a life-threatening incompatibility. Everything changes when two of them are captured.   

In Bone Tomahawk‘s most memorable scene (and what follows is less of a spoiler than something that inevitably comes up in most discussions about the film), Russell’s Sheriff Hunt forces himself to watch the grisly end result of what happens to the cannibals’ captives and can only promise revenge from his makeshift prison as his young deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) is stripped, scalped, then impaled with a spear driven through his head-skin and through the back of his mouth, then suspended upside down only to be cleaved, naked, down the center. Bone Tomahawk pays off the previously unknowable totality of its setup in that moment and the stakes get raised to drastic heights—what was a recovery mission becomes an all-out fight for survival.  

While that moment of unthinkable violence, which is given a remarkably steady treatment to underscore its situational normalcy, is Bone Tomahawk’s defining moment, it would be a mistake to focus only on that aspect of the film’s legacy. Zahler imbues every fleeting moment of his characters’ thoughtlessness with genuine thought, allowing minute details to shape viewers expectations before upending them with subtle twists. He brings impressive craftsmanship to material that could have played as pure schlock in less adept hands.

Bloody, barbaric, and blackly funny in bursts, Bone Tomahawk has earned its reputation as a pulpy midnight Western classic. Impressively, Bone Tomahawk wound up earning several nominations on the awards circuit in the 2015-16 season, ultimately earning wins for Zahler at the Sitges Film Festival and Russell at the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. Worth a watch any time of day, Bone Tomahawk is a memorably twisted journey into man’s barbarism and a strong reminder about the tenuous nature of personal conviction. Also, for those who enjoy his performance as the lovably chatty Chicory, Jenkins will be visiting Madison on April 5 for a Wisconsin Film Festival screening of his new movie The Last Shift.

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