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Never A Bad Time For A Good Western: Bone Tomahawk

I love Westerns, and while they have taken a dark turn in recent years I’m still attached to the genre…so when Doug Benson recommended that I see Bone Tomahawk with Kurt Russell to discuss on the latest episode of my podcast, I was happy to oblige.

I respect and admire Quentin Tarantino, but this modest feature leaves The Hateful Eight in the dust. It’s provocative, original, extremely violent and extremely good. The film had a brief theatrical release last fall and is now available on Blu-ray and VOD; you can watch a behind-the-scenes featurette and a q&a from last year’s Fantastic Fest on iTunes. Even better, it’s been nominated for Best Screenplay at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.

It’s hard to believe that filmmaker S. Craig Zahler has never directed a feature before. I can only presume that his screenplay attracted the first-rate cast that populates the picture. The characters are well-drawn and colorful; each one has an individual way of speaking, with Richard Jenkins taking home honors as a loquacious back-up assistant deputy. Zahler and cinematographer Benji Bakshi make excellent use of their locations and sets, and at no time does the film seem to suffer for lack of production value.

Richard Jenkins, Kurt Russell

Richard Jenkins, Kurt Russell (Photo by Scott Everett White – Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment)

Kurt Russell sports a lived-in look as the elaborately bearded and mustachioed sheriff of a sleepy town incongruously called Bright Hope. There is nothing bright about the goings-on in and around this community, as Russell learns when several people close to him are abducted. He sets out on a quest to bring them back, along with his aged deputy, a sleek, seemingly heartless gunman (Matthew Fox) and an earnest cowboy (Patrick Wilson) who’s impelled to go even though he’s suffering with a broken leg.

These four unlikely allies have their work cut out for them: they have been warned that the kidnappers are likely a ferocious cave-dwelling tribe of troglodytes.

I hesitate to reveal more than that. I should warn you that there are elements of horror and even supernatural in the film, and some scenes are startlingly graphic. Yet by the time they occur, writer-director Zahler has drawn us in completely and given us an emotional stake in the fate of his characters, so nothing seems gratuitous or exploitive.

Lili Simmons-Patrick Wilson-680

Lili Simmons and Patrick Wilson
(Photo by Scott Everett White – Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment)

The supporting cast features a number of familiar faces, some of whom you might miss if you’re not paying close attention: David Arquette, Fred Melamed, Sid Haig, James Tolkan, Kathryn Morris, and Lili Simmons (from the TV series Banshee). But it’s the commitment of the key players that gives the film its gravitas.

I plan to follow the career of S. Craig Zahler, who has several unproduced screenplays to his credit. I might even read his Western novels A Congregation of Jackals and Wraiths of the Broken Land. But for now I’m happy to be a proselytizer for his debut feature.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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