You don’t get many westerns nowadays, which I think is a crying shame, but in his directorial debut, S. Craig Zahler has bought us one of the best for a long while in Bone Tomahawk. His novelist background is clear in the construction of his characters, all of whom bring to life this horror-western than plays to its own rhythm, merging intelligence and gore superbly.
A desert dwelling criminal (David Arquette) accidentally damages the burial site on a tribe of cannibalistic cave dwellers known as Troglodytes – he flees, and winds up in the town of Bright Hope, where he is arrested by town sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell). The next morning, Hunt finds his prisoner, his deputy and doctor’s assistant Samantha (Lili Simmons) have been abducted. Hunt leads a posse including his back-up deputy (Richard Jenkins), a gunslinger (Matthew Fox) and Samantha’s husband, a crippled cowboy (Patrick Wilson), on a rescue mission, in which they face all manner of difficulties before coming across the monstrous savages themselves.
Bone Tomahawk is curious genre-hybrid, merging elements of the western, the comedy and the horror. It is the first few that take up most of the runtime – a lot of the movie could be a John Ford picture, with the characters on a quest across the desert. There is a fine line in snappy and fun dialogue (all delivered in period speak, no less), and a great degree of quirky humour (often delivered by Jenkins’ Chicory).
The film also marches to its own beat, and relies more on the power and the chemistry of the four leads until it reaches its climax (Zahler is happy to dwell on details, such as Wilson’s character dealing with his leg wound, in excruciating detail). It would struggle, then, were the leads not particularly engaging, but that is not the case here. Russell is typically good as the world-weary sheriff facing a danger he can scarcely understand out of a sense of duty and right, and Fox (hardly a man you can associate with captivating performances) gets into his character and delivers what is arguably his best performance yet.
Jenkins is the heart of the film, presented a comedic person but one later revealed to have a lot of hidden depth, and Wilson uses his natural likeability to supplement a performance that is incredibly physical. This is a four-piece ensemble in which every man brings a lot to his part and they are superb together, complementing each other wonderfully.
Its characters are its top strength, but when it wants to get gory, it does so with aplomb. The movie opens with a brutal throat slitting and a bludgeoning with a rock – it sets the tone for the violence and whenever it makes a comeback, it grabs you at the throat. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and I’ve rarely seen a death sequence quite as brutal and horrible as the one that befalls Deputy Nick. If you’ve got a weak stomach, the climax of Bone Tomahawk will turn it. This is not quite the slasher flick that was promised by the trailers, but that works to the movie’s benefit – delivering strong violence infrequently gives it far more impact when it eventually comes around.
Bone Tomahawk is a captivating mash-up that plays with generic conventions to deliver one of the most interesting movies in a long time. It won’t be for everybody, and it is not without fault – it is more than two hours long, and certainly feels it, dragging on a bit in the middle – but if you are willing to sit down and immerse yourself in this picture, you’ll be guaranteed a treat. Bone Tomahawk takes the best bits of western, comedy and horror movies and employs them to top effect.
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Cast: Kurt Russell (Sheriff Hunt), Patrick Wilson (Arthur), Matthew Fox (Brooder), Richard Jenkins (Chicory), Lili Simmons (Samantha), Evan Jonigkeit (Deputy Nick)
Running Time: 132 Mins