An expectation can be a strange thing. Bone Tomahawk is the directorial debut from novelist and musician S. Craig Sahler, whose previous cinematic claim to fame was co-writing the barely-discussed (but great) 2011 horror Asylum Blackout, and it centers on four men heading out on a mission to rescue people from a group of inbred cannibals living in caves. No one would get an arrow to the head for assuming this was a slasher flick that dealt in equal measures of gore and exploitation, but that is about as far from the truth as possible. Okay, so there is some pretty solid gore involved.
A movie that definitely isn’t for the entire spectrum of moviegoers, the star-studded Bone Tomahawk is an oddball delight of a film that, while a bit too long, can easily hang its hat on whatever genre you’re looking for. Let’s start off with…The Western. In the dusty, building-lite landscapes of over-a-century-ago, Kurt Russell is the hardnosed Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a brave man always sympathetic to his second-in-command Chicory, played exquisitely by a nearly unrecognizable Richard Jenkins. After a doctor (Lili Simmons) and a deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) are kidnapped by the aforementioned outcasts, the doctor’s husband, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), joins the two lawmen and the boastful gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox) on a miles-long hunt to track them down. Picture a modern version of The Searchers being written by Zahler while a series of Quentin Tarentino interviews are playing on low volume in the background.
Now…The Dark Comedy. With its modest budget and an almost too-straightforward narrative, Bone Tomahawk spends a lot of time just following men around, so it would have been a struggle to sit through had the dialogue and performances not been so surprisingly peppered with humor. None of it specifically reads as jokey or slapstick-y or anything, but there’s just lots of moments where the situation feels incredibly dire, and a character will deliver an offbeat thought or opinion that heightens the situation. Jenkins in particular is great for this, as Chicory is quite the rambling old man, and his confusion about how one can properly read a book while taking a bath was an unpredictable highlight. It’s definitely a modern sensibility going into the writing, but with a matter of factness that fits the period setting.
Now…The Horror Thriller. It takes exactly 1 second for Bone Tomahawk to deliver its first scene of dramatic violence, and although it definitely sets up the off-kilter humor thanks to performances from David Arquette and modern horror vet Sid Haig, you get the feeling that awful things will happen in this movie. And that they do, although the majority of it takes place in the final act, once all the story pieces come together. That’s not really a spoiler, because there are absolutely dark and horrifying moments in the first two-thirds (especially some involving things done to Arthur’s injured leg), but just in case you thought that brief gunfights were the most action this movie was packing, just wait. There are sequences later on that will definitely turn weaker stomachs. Beyond the violence, though, there’s an undeniable dread that sets in at a certain point that doesn’t let up.
With non-populated California settings as his shooting locations, Zahler was free to direct this movie however the hell he wanted to. And while he probably won’t be winning any awards for his work, there are some really great bits in this movie that are his alone without leaning on the cast or the effects work. Any time the shots go wide, and audiences are granted a look at the locations at large, there is always the innate fear that something awful is creeping up just outside the frame. Certainly a more established filmmaker could have done more with it, but there are way too many directors out there that would have churned out a depressingly less effective film from the exact same script. Zahler needs to make more movies, and soon.
I’d love to say that this cast was an unstoppable force that couldn’t be replaced, but Jenkins was the true standout here whose presence stood up to every other stellar role in his career. Russell was predictably solid as the sheriff, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t thinking about this as an extension of Tombstone’s Wyatt Earp, but the character lacked the depth that his mustache warranted. Wilson, whom I find fairly faultless in everything he’s in, is weighed down by the character’s leg injury, and even though he has the biggest motivation of anyone, he figuratively and literally drags things down at times. And with a background that deals heavily in Native American murder, the mighty John Brooder is the slightest and most replaceable of them all, but Fox’s performance is solid and doesn’t take anything away from the film.
With a 132-minute runtime, Bone Tomahawk is definitely longer than your average movie, so it makes sense that it borrows from all sides, rather than just one-dimensionally trudging through the tumbleweeds. The cast is going to be the biggest draw to this flick for movie fans – says me from personal experience – but it’s Zahler’s signature writing and erratic approach to the material that will keep everyone glued to their seats.