Arts & Books Comment

Film review: Vigilante cowboys ride into horror territory

If you're a sucker for cowboy stories, then Bone Tomahawk is for you

Last year Slow West, by first-time British director John Maclean, came and went pretty much unnoticed, loved by a handful of critics but not seen widely. This year another Western (albeit a genre-bending one), Bone Tomahawk (18, 132 mins,★★★★), could well suffer a similar fate, as it’s defiantly odd and uncompromising.

Set on the dusty frontier in the late-19th century, the story goes that a young woman and a deputy sheriff are snatched from their isolated town by a tribe of Native Americans. The captives are taken prisoner in the Valley of the Hungry Men, and the clue is in name as to what fate may await them. These dust-covered natives just so happen to enjoy the taste of human flesh. So Sheriff Hunt, played by Kurt Russell, gathers a posse and heads out on a rescue mission.

S Craig Zahler handles his material with confidence and conviction. He plays with familiar Western tropes and creates a slightly heightened comic book aesthetic, but we are also made to care for Hunt and his associates as their relationships subtly build, thanks to the steady pace, a well-judged script and some fine acting, particularly from Richard Jenkins as the sheriff’s bumbling right-hand man.

This connection to the characters proves vital when, in the final act, the register changes and we move sharply and violently into horror film territory. This shift may well confound some viewers, and the shocking nature of the violence will certainly put a few people off, but if, like me, you’re a sucker for stories of cowboys and Indians, no matter how grisly, then Bone Tomahawk is for you.

Australian director John Hillcoat has his own angular Western on his CV, in the shape of 2005’s The Proposition. His latest, Triple 9 (15, 116 mins, ★★★), is another visceral tale of corrupt lawmen and copious bloodshed, but this time we’re in the territory of modern American crime thriller.

The plot centres on a group of dirty cops carrying out heists for a gang of Russian-Jewish gangsters (or the “Kosher Nostra”, as Woody Harrelson’s frazzled detective dubs them). Double-crossing, murder and mayhem ensue from the moment the opening armed robbery goes wrong, and Hillcoat, a magnificent director, imbues proceedings with a compulsive, brutal energy.

Unfortunately, you get the sense he’s making the best of a bad job. The narrative feels over-familiar and weak, while the script offers precious little light relief. The performances are patchy, too. Harrelson and Casey Affleck do good work, but are we seriously expected to buy Kate Winslet, and her dodgy accent, as the merciless head of the Russian clan? She’s the least convincing gangster since Fredo Corleone.