Is Bone Tomahawk another cult movie in the making from Kurt Russell?

An established star. A first-time director. A horror-Western. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw gets the low-down on Bone Tomahawk.

Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk
Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk

Kurt Russell is used to hearing his movie choices described as cult classics.

In Hollywood parlance that generally means they won’t be widely seen, at least not initially, but will acquire their status over time. “I’ve made quite a few movies that fall into that category,” he reveals.

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“They were made, they were misunderstood or they were just so different that they didn’t follow the norm. I can give you Escape From New York to Big Trouble in Little China to Used Cars to Overboard to Tombstone. I’ve done ten of them!”

He adds Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof to the list. And now Bone Tomahawk, a project he describes as “just one of those little indie movies” that he helped put together.

The 64-year-old character player admits he had never before taken the plunge with an independent film. And the process was not an easy one. It got close to being a ‘go’ and then collapsed, not once but twice. But he and writer/director S Craig Zahler persevered. Now audiences and critics are describing it as… an immediate cult classic.

Russell laughs. “There are going to be a lot of people who won’t know about this. It’ll come and go. I fully expect this movie to be, 15 years from now, something that people come up to me and say ‘Do you know what I just saw? Bone Tomahawk! Man, that was fantastic!’ I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

Perhaps not. A lot of people are pointing to the film’s blend of traditional Western tropes – the posse hunting Indians who kidnapped a doctor’s wife – and its terrifying, blood-drenched finale (the Indians are cave-dwelling cannibals) as a winning combo.

For writer-director S Craig Zahler, 43, the movie came about after years of struggling to get several scripts off the ground in a modern Hollywood in which the Western is most definitely yesterday’s news.

At the London Film Festival last year he revealed his raison d’être in creating this most unusual and off-kilter adventure/chiller.

“This is the fifth Western I’ve written. Preceding this I had two Western novels published and then a couple of Western scripts that I sold in Hollywood that didn’t get produced.

“So I was already doing something different with the Western whilst embracing what I think are the core elements of the genre but then when it gets dark it gets really dark and goes a lot further than the audience expects. I wanted to come away from an experience with some images in your mind that you are not likely to forget.”

For his directorial debut Zahler chose to shoot a 133-minute movie on 70 locations in just 21 days. He remembers facing “pretty much every challenge imaginable. It was a gruelling shoot and the only way something like this happens is if a lot of people that believe in the material knock themselves out to do it.” Enter Kurt Russell. The script made its way to him via fellow actor Peter Sarsgaard, who was originally in line for one of the key roles and who shares an agent with Russell.

Zahler says Russell was apprehensive about working with a first-time director on such an ambitious project. But Zahler’s background – he’s a cinematographer as well as an author – convinced the veteran star, who’s been an actor since childhood.

What made him so right for the role of the small-town sheriff who finds himself on a journey into a world of horror the like of which he’s never experienced? Zahler compares him to Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster.

“In addition to being a movie star Kurt’s a particularly good actor. There’s a certain weight that he brings to a role like that so he was something of an obvious choice for me.

“There’s a quality to the cadences of his voice and his line readings. It’s particularly memorable. This is a guy who turned a lot of lines that were pretty good on the page into something really, really special. There’s just that quality that comes with him that makes things like that happen.”

It’s that perceived old school quality that filmmakers such as John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino have seen in Russell. The actor himself shrugs off the compliment.

“That’s nice. All that means is they feel that way from the characters they’ve seen. What I have discovered over a long period of time working as an actor is that you’re not going to control what other people think.

“That’s okay. That’s the job you’re in. The job you’re in is to convince people of the character you’re playing. I’ve played a lot of different characters. The characters in the Disney light comedies I did were very different from some of the movies I’ve done with John Carpenter and Quentin. The fun part is to go and play as many of them as you can and let the chips fall where they may. When people have an image of you, it doesn’t really matter what the truth is.”

Fans of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight may have noticed that as bounty hunter John Ruth Russell sports a magnificent moustache. It was a four-month grow that he began for Bone Tomahawk.

“I cut my beard down, but I continued to grow the mustache, so it was a massive thing for Hateful Eight. The look I have in Bone Tomahawk was halfway to where I was going for Hateful Eight. It’s in full-blown maturity in Hateful Eight! It’s a mustache wearing a man in, not the other way around!”

Bone Tomahawk (18) is on nationwide release.