If John Ford or Howard Hawks had permitted Eli Roth to guest-direct a few scenes of one of their signature westerns, it might have looked an awful lot like Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler's striking directorial debut. The horror-western isn't a new genre, but this is one of the few that actually seems more preoccupied with being a western than it does with being a horror film. It does such an admirable job of recreating the relaxed charm of an old-school horse opera that you begin to dread the inevitable moment when everything goes to hell.
The tale begins in the small town of Bright Hope (a sign at the town entrance reads “Our population is 268”), where Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell, Escape from New York) shoots and subsequently arrests a drifter (David Arquette, Scream) who had been acting suspiciously. Sheriff Hunt asks town doctor Samatha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons, Banshee) to tend to the prisoner's wounds and tasks a young deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) with keeping an eye on the prisoner. The next morning, the town discovers that a young stable boy has been slaughtered, while the prisoner, the doctor and the deputy have vanished. It would appear that Indians are responsible, but a local expert named Tall Trees (Zahn McClarnon, Longmire) insists otherwise: “Men like you would not distinguish them from Indians,” he grumbles, “But they are something else entirely. Inbred monsters. Troglodytes.”
Despite warnings that these... creatures... are far too dangerous to be fought, Sheriff Hunt organizes a rescue party. He's joined by aging deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins, Burn After Reading), professional killer John Brooder (Matthew Fox, Lost) and Samantha's husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson, Watchmen). The trip will be long and rough, and the Sheriff knows this isn't the ideal crew. Chicory is probably too old for this sort of thing. Brooder has a troubling cruel streak. Arthur is still recovering from a serious leg injury, and ought to be at home healing up. Still, all four men are determined to see the mission through to its end, and they ride out together.
Bone Tomahawk was shot on a fairly limited budget, but Zahler seems determined not to let his movie feel small. This is a grand, sprawling film that plays out in vast, open western spaces, and its 132-minute running time feels striking in contrast to recently released low-budget westerns like The Salvation (92 minutes) and Slow West (84 minutes). Impressively, the film never feels slow or bloated, using its extra time to let us get to know its characters better: Wilson practices reading a letter he wrote months earlier, Jenkins marvels at the wonders he once saw at a flea circus and Russell quietly attempts to navigate his way out of an argument with his wife (Kathryn Morris, Cold Case). These are the sort of scenes that might have easily been lopped off by a ruthless producer, but they work beautifully here because the cast is so strong.
Russell hasn't made a western since the enjoyable Tombstone, and his performance here makes me sad that he hasn't made a dozen more in the past two decades (though he has a second one on the way this year: Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight). There's something undeniably John Wayne-esque in the way Russell carries himself – a relaxed alpha male swagger that few other modern actors could capture - but the Sheriff has better control of his emotions than most of Wayne's characters do. When some of the supporting players make foolish decisions or hurl nasty insults, the Sheriff tends to shrug it off. Sure, he might feel like punching his partners now and then, but he knows they've got bigger problems to deal with and that they can't afford to waste energy fighting with each other.
If Russell is the film's Wayne equivalent, than Richard Jenkins is certainly its Walter Brennan/Hank Worden figure – the good-hearted old codger who simultaneously serves as the film's primary source of comic relief and as the group's conscience. It's yet another reminder of what a gifted, likable actor Jenkins is, and he brings a gentle sweetness to the film that feels awfully welcome in a movie this unforgiving and violent. Fox is better than he's ever been, essaying an insouciant dandy whose arrogance and cruelty are only tolerated because of his talent with a revolver. He comes across as a one-dimensional type at first, but the character grows deeper and more complicated as the film moves on, and Fox sells the hidden rage lurking beneath his well-groomed, unflappable surface. Wilson's performance is similarly slow to reveal its depths: he begins as the group's whiniest figure, but eventually begins to seem like the most resilient member of the party.
Zahler likes to listen to his characters talk, but the long-winded dialogue scenes are generally a pleasure to listen to. While a handful of lines don't quite work (there's one slightly awkward scene in which Wilson talks to himself in order to fill the audience in on what he's thinking), Zahler largely seems adept with both anguished drama and playful banter. There's more humor in the film than you might expect, even in moments when you least expect it – one of the biggest laughs in the movie comes right in the middle one of the film's most horrifying sequences.
Speaking of which: when the horror material finally arrives, it leaves a mark. The film prepares us for its intense violence with a nasty opening scene (I was grimacing within the first thirty seconds of the movie), but it's still pretty startling to witness the tonal shift that occurs in the movie's third act. I won't spoil the details of who the “troglodytes” are or what they're up to, but they're a force to be reckoned with. I've endured my share of grisly horror films, but there were moments when I contemplated turning away from Bone Tomahawk – the film's most violent moments are ferociously brutal (there's at least one scene that easily ranks as one of the most graphic things I've ever seen in a horror film). I mentioned Eli Roth's name earlier as a point of reference for the level of violence, though it should be noted that his smirking tone is absent from these horrific scenes. Zahler actually cares about all of his characters, and the film's humanity plays a huge role in preventing it from feeling cruel.
The film works well as a surface-level horror/western, but there's also something a bit deeper and darker lurking beneath the surface. Early on, I couldn't help but notice the way the film marginalized the minority characters that appear: the African-American stable boy is murdered within a minute of his first appearance, the Native American local refuses to join the rescue mission, and a pair of friendly Mexicans depart the film nearly as quickly as they enter it. Eventually, you begin to realize that this running theme is a deliberate one, and that it ties into the larger notions the film is exploring. At one point, the Fox character murders a dark-skinned individual in cold blood, which infuriates the other members of the group. “He just taught that man the meaning of manifest destiny,” Jenkins mutters. Indeed, the west was won by killers and thieves, finding territory they wanted and taking it by force. Bone Tomahawk is a story about the territory fighting back.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 132 minutes
Release Year: 2015