2 hour, 12
When you cast Kurt Russell in your movie, especially a genre movie like a western or a horror flick, you’re making a statement. You’re saying this movie is going to be tough, and cool, and just a little crazy. Think “Escape from New York,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” or even “Tombstone.” Russell is a definite fan favorite, and the fans, at least this one, expects a certain amount of energy when he’s a part of your project. Now, you could say much the same for Clint Eastwood in his early years, and we all know that after “Unforgiven” the actor’s films were much more somber and reflective. Maybe the same thing is happening with Kurt Russell. This week’s film, “Bone Tomahawk” is somber and reflective.
It’s not, however, a film about the hard realities of frontier justice and the regrets of a life misspent. It’s not, in short, “Unforgiven.” This is a western horror film about cowboys vs. cannibals. It’s a monster movie and it’s pretentious and ponderous, stilted and forced. None of these things are what you want from your crazy Kurt Russell movie.
“Tomahawk” opens with a pair of literal cutthroats robbing and murdering some unsuspecting cowboys, setting the tone for what is a fairly grisly story, at least in punctuating moments.
When one of the cutthroats, Purvis, in a kind of cameo performance from David Arquette, wanders into the town of Bright Hope, the sheriff, played by Russell, and his deputy Chicory, performed by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, take notice and roust him as a ne’er-do-well. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Purvis and his late partner happened to desecrate the burial ground of a particularly humorless group of cave-dwelling cannibals shortly after performing their dastardly deeds. Purvis escaped but was pursued. The cannibals arrive in Bright Hope shortly after he does and take him home as a prize, along with another deputy and the wife of a local rancher. This, naturally, puts our Sheriff and Chicory in the unenviable position of having to go after their missing citizens, accompanied by Arthur O’Dwyer, the rancher who’s wife was taken, and a slick gunman by the name of John Brooder, played by Matthew Fox. O’Dwyer, played by Patrick Wilson, has suffered a recent broken leg, which adds a layer of difficulty to an already impossible situation. Horse thieves and rocky terrain slow their progress, but whether our heroes will reach the cannibals is never in doubt. It’s what they will find when they get there that’s the real question.
“Bone Tomahawk” is a big disappointment. With Halloween parties and trick-or-treating last weekend, I wasn’t able to make it to the theatre, but “Tomahawk” wasn’t really a consolation prize. It’s one of those new independents currently running in theaters and On-Demand at the same time. It’s got a great cast, great buzz, and generally positive reviews. That is to say, I was really anticipating a good movie, and that’s even taking into account the cannibalism angle, a plotline in movies I have absolutely no interest in exploring. I almost wish I could say that the movie was too gruesome for me, but really it was too stodgy. Yes, it’s gruesome in a couple of scenes. I even had to look away at one point – but that scene occurs after two hours of talk with very little action, and even it feels sapped of energy. The acting is fine, for the most part. Russell is definitely the best thing about the movie, but I kept waiting for his character to show a little spark. I was less impressed with Lilli Simmons as the captured wife. Despite adequate line readings of the stilted nineteenth-century dialogue, there was something about her that never felt authentic. Jenkins is doing his best to create a memorable old-west character, but I’ve seen him do better work in myriad other projects.
Perhaps my biggest problem with “Tomahawk” is it’s pretension. It pretends to be important and serious, but there’s nothing real about it. It refuses to have any fun with the subject matter, and if terrifying bands of cave-dwelling monsters had been a real issue for settlers on the frontier, I could see taking this seriously, but luckily they just had to deal with real problems, like angry Indians and dysentery. You can tell the filmmakers are scared of being accused of racism, as if their cannibals are supposed to stand in for real Native Americans. They go out of their way to distance their monsters from reality. They are referred to as troglodytes and the Indians are just as afraid of them as the white characters. The film goes so far as to present the character of the “professor,” the most educated and learned man in town, as an Indian. Now, I have no doubt as to the wisdom of nineteenth-century Native Americans, but this characterization feels like pandering.
None of these issues should be a problem with a “cowboys vs. cannibals” movie. These are problems faced by a film that is over-reaching and a director/writer who isn’t confident in his craft. And none of it is helped by the fact that the most vibrant presence in the film is constrained in this sad, pseudo-serious performance. Don’t cast Wyatt Earp in your monster movie if you’re not going to let him throw down. Grade: C-
“Bone Tomahawk” is unrated, but includes nudity, language, sex, and gruesome violence.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.