The western film genre has always had a violent backbone. Even in the sunniest and most heroic of examples, more often that not, we’re watching a struggle of survival where it is kill or be killed in a raw rural landscape. We label, separate, and celebrate heroes from villains, but all are killers with only opposing morals and justice of different degrees separating them. The violence is ever present. Few traditional westerns embrace its violent reality. “Bone Tomahawk” surges head first into it with absolute courage and graphic disregard.
This bold directorial debut from S. Craig Zahler is populated with plenty of western traditions and emboldens itself further with a scent of being out for blood matched with the stomach that can handle more than its fair share. Kurt Russell top lines “Bone Tomahawk” as Sheriff Franklin Hunt. Like the actor himself, Hunt is a steely-eyed man in charge of his small cow town. Married to a good woman (TV actress Kathryn Morris of “Cold Case”), he has two deputies, one young named Nick (Evan Jonigkeit of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) and one old named Chicory (Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins).
When two crooks (David Arquette and blaxploitation relic Sid Haig) cross paths and inadvertently desecrate an Indian burial ground of skulls and whispering wind out in the frontier, only one leaves and stumbles into Hunt’s town as a drifter. What they stumbled upon follows them to town. The female doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (“Banshee” actress Lili Simmons), the drifter, and deputy Nick are kidnapped during the night with a single arrow left behind as a clue. The local Indian guide recognizes the calling card as belonging to a nameless and language-less tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals to the west. The only name he gives them is Troglodytes.
Sheriff Hunt quickly arranges a search-and-rescue party. The doctor’s husband, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) leaps into action despite a broken leg. Chicory rides with Hunt and the fourth man is the vain, educated shootist John Brooder, played with a cool sophistication by Matthew Fox. Together, they hit the trail to find the savages and retrieve who they can. That’s when the musical score kicks in (co-composed by the director himself) and the stakes get raised. What they find and who they find will stun you where you sit. The bloody affair that transpires builds “Bone Tomahawk” to be a shocker that you will not soon forget.
Each of the four men in pursuit soak up the genre atmosphere and build upon the bedrock of this harrowing journey. Russell and Fox shine as two sides of the same coin, united with a common goal and bluntly stalwart with their plain matter of speaking. You never have to ask those two to cut the crap and get on with it. Wilson and Jenkins follow with a levity to break the tension when necessary, but “Bone Tomahawk” will not loosen its grip until resolution is met or everyone is dead.
The real treat here is the epic-sized creativity. S. Craig Zahler, directing from only his second feature screenplay (after 2011’s horror also-ran “Asylum Blackout”), dials the grotesque intensity in “Bone Tomahawk” to frightening heights in brazenly violent spurts. Grisly is too soft of a word. Nevertheless, the film goes that far while retaining the grit and pathos of its western frame. The terror of a horror film meets the dry potency of a western. The result is a striking and ballsy mashup between the two genres. Zahler immediately becomes a new filmmaker to keep an eye on.
“Bone Tomahawk” joins with the Danish film “The Salvation” from earlier in the year as bold small steps of what can become a revitalization of the western film genre. Add the Michael Fassbender film “Slow West” into that mix. They are proof that more filmmakers than Quentin Tarantino can make good westerns. Signs of this genre riding off into the sunset are premature. “Bone Tomahawk” is playing concurrently in a limited theatrical release and on VOD platforms. If you’ve got the stomach for a gut-wrenching western with extra guts, skin this Smoke Wagon and see what happens. You might just stand there and bleed.
Lesson #1: Just so you know, getting scalped will not immediately kill you— Oh yeah (*full body shiver*). This movie goes there with its grisliness. There’s no question getting scalped is going to hurt, bleed, and put you in shock, but it is not fatal, FYI. There are not enough blood vessels between your skin and skull for you to bleed out quickly. It is a severe topical wound. Forensically smart people know that real-life bodily harm makes for a slow death, not a quick one. Taking a bullet (or an arrow) to anywhere but the head isn’t the instant, music chord-backed, death you see in the movies. The reality is drawn-out pain and torture. Eww…
Lesson #2: Boy, they sure don’t talk like they used to— One aspect of “Bone Tomahawk” that endlessly impresses is the purposeful dialogue and manner of speaking employed by the screenplay. The film is R-rated for violence, but you likely won’t hear a single cuss word. Other films let modern times cross over and muddy the good old English language of yesteryear. True to the period, Zahler gives these characters a down home language that crosses over to the poetic without extra waxing or pontification. The cool, calm, and serious meet the soulful and God-fearing without cliche.
Lesson #3: The responsibilities of a sheriff and a husband— Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Hunt is the kind of man who will cut to the chase and wound a ruffian rather than talk him down in one moment and stand stoically the next as as shepherd watching over his flock. He knows he is responsible for the doctor’s kidnapping that happened on his watch. He’s a true, selfless lawman. Suicide mission or not, he’s prepared for the risks and consequences that go with that responsibility. His leadership and responsibility inspires others to join him on the rescue. Samantha’s husband Arthur matches that with the same responsibility as a husband with vows to protect his wife and family.