On paper, claiming Bone Tomahawk to be anyone’s first film is a nearly unbelievable statement. The film is confident beyond measure and has a firm grasp on its tone which straddles the lines between comedy and horror. Amidst the other genres it plays with, Bone Tomahawk is a Western, through and through.
The film’s writer and first-time director, S. Craig Zahler, has been writing Western novels and screenplays for years and his experience in the genre shines through and adds a nuanced, if a little long, take to what is a simple premise.
Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) protects the typically quaint town of Bright Hope from intruders, rustlers, robbers and savages all while keeping his Deputy, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and simple-minded Deputy Backup, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), busy and out of each other’s way. When a robber (David Arquette) wanders into town one night, having seen and survived something certainly terrible, Sheriff Hunt questions his intentions. Unable to provide just cause for his presence and proving a physical threat, Hunt shoots the robber, which calls for the attention of the town’s doctor. With the doctor being the old drunk he is, they turn toward the doctor’s assistant, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who was attending the broken leg of her loving husband, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson). Left with tending to the robber’s wound, Sam stays the night in the town jailhouse with Deputy Nick acting as security. It isn’t until morning, after a grisly murder is found in the local stables, that Hunt goes to check the jailhouse and finds all three who were inside missing. Arrows left behind suggest a band of savage Troglodytes are those responsible for the kidnapping. Known for their brutal attacks and cannibalistic tendencies, Hunt rides out in haste with Arthur, Chicory and suave cowboy and experienced Indian killer, John Brooder (Matthew Fox) taking up arms with him.
Search and rescue is about as simple as it gets when it comes to narrative structure. It allows the story to move along at its own pace, all while the ticking clock of an innocent’s life hangs in the balance. Bone Tomahawk plays things slowly, allowing the viewer to get swept up in conversation with these four men. Kurt Russell anchors the cast with his grizzled experience and deadpan delivery. He does what he does best and it’s wonderful, if not surprising. Through his filter, we see how the characters dance around one another, eventually growing trust within themselves that might actually allow them to survive this unknowably evil trek.
Because things here get really, really evil.
Tension is mounted through the deliberate first two acts, often leavened by flat-out hilarious bits of humor. Richard Jenkins is nearly unrecognizable under the years and scruff of his character Chicory. He plays the type of simple Western folk made famous by actors like Andy Devine. I don’t say it lightly when I claim that this may be my favorite Richard Jenkins performance ever. The comedy that is peppered in through one-liners and situational gags are all-timers and were a welcome distraction from the onslaught of dread as our rescuers ventured closer and closer toward their goal.
To spoil any details beyond the premise I’ve already laid out would be a true crime. Going in cold, with no knowledge of the secrets the film holds (very much like our band of heroes) is a wonderful experience, full of moments of shock, terror and joy.
Matthew Fox also brings an unexpected humor and bravado to the character of Brooder. His dead stare and wry timing are used to perfection as he plays both into and against one of the more common Western tropes of the gunslinging cowboy. The movie has plenty to say about these tropes, Zahler placing his stamp on the genre with his take. He wants to push the limits of typical Western fortitude, all in the shadow of relentless evil and certain death. The film explores the tensions between man, nature and manifest destiny and firmly makes a point as to why the West is such an interesting place to explore.
Make no mistake, this is no Unforgiven and I mean that as a compliment.
Zahler and the entire cast and crew succeed in spades with Bone Tomahawk. It is everything the filmgoing experience should be and will no doubt leave a mark on at least two storied genres. Keep ’em coming like this, Zahler, keep ’em coming.