Bone Tomahawk: Cowboys and Cannibals
Much like many movie-goers, I decided to skip the theater this weekend. Instead of tickets and popcorn, I fired up Amazon and kicked back with a bowl of chili, intent on watching Kurt Russell’s latest trip into the wild west, Bone Tomahawk. Maybe that is why so few Westerns make it to the theater? It’s hard to enjoy a good cowboy flick without a decent bowl of chili…and perhaps a couple fingers of bourbon and branch. As this film got going, I forgot all about the chili, and had other fingers than bourbon to worry about. This film does not stint when it comes to dismemberment, and losing a digit was about the tamest calamity to befall our heroes. As a horror-western, S. Craig Zahler’s film treads respectfully upon two very distinct traditions. While this means that the film wears its inspiration on its sleeves, it does create a tense and bloody cowboy movie that is gripping…and gory.
The Good, The Bad, and the Flesh Hungry (a working title)
Bone Tomahawk begins with a pair of cut-throats attempting to escape a posse by cutting through a dry gulch, which just happens to be a sacred burial ground for a gaggle of troglodytes. Very religious, very violent, and very hungry troglodytes. While one of them is messily dismembered, the other (David Arquette) escapes to the nearby town of Bright Hope. There, he is quickly caught out by the aging sheriff (Kurt Russell) and thrown in jail. Unfortunately for Bright Hope, the trogs are still really pissed (and hungry) and they abduct the miscreant, along with the nurse tending him and the deputy guarding them. Sheriff
Wyatt Earp Hunt forms a posse of his own, including a half senile deputy, the grieving husband of the nurse (who is suffering from a broken leg,) and a cool and vicious gunslinger who hates all natives with a passion. The local professor, a Native American, points them to the home of the troglodytes. He explains that they are not part of the tribes and may be as old as the land itself. They are vicious cannibals, hated and shunned by all of the tribes…and feared to such an extant that he will not guide them to their lands, only draw them a map. They take this map and ride off into hell.
The Painted Hills Have Eyes
Director and screen writer S. Craig Zahler has written award nominated westerns, and worked on well respected horror films. Bone Tomahawk is a good dose of both, but it feels a tad bi-polar. The elements that are horror are gruesomely and wickedly good horror, and the elements that are a western are some of the finest I’ve seen in quite some time…but they never quite feel blended together into something bigger than their parts. The beginning and end are fine “crazy family” gore-fests, redolent of films such as The Hills Have Eyes or Texas Chainsaw Massacre, only set in the old west. The cowboy aspects, especially the long ride our heroes take to catch up to the bad guys, is all classic western fair, like True Grit, The Searchers, and The Missing. They’re both excellent examples of those genres; they just never seem to meld into something bigger.
Don’t Play with Your Food!
My only other gripe with this piece is that much of what happens requires you to accept some silliness on the parts of the participants. The heroes, who have shown themselves to be pretty hardened and capable dudes, make bone-headed decisions once the stakes are at their highest…and the troglodytes reciprocate by never sealing the deal. They’ve got our boys where they want them, but proceed to toy with them, for no particular reason. If they’re out for vengeance, they should just murder them straight up. If they’re going to eat them, you would suppose they would guard them vigilantly. If they’re religious fanatics, you would think they wouldn’t taunt their prey, but instead make a big deal about them. Nope, they just kind of menace them until the plot comes to an orgy of violent resolution.
Some Real Characters
The acting in this film is extremely solid. Each actor is at home in their role, and gives their character a real personality. Kurt Russel pretty much channels his earlier performance in Tombstone, and as any who have seen that film, that makes him one great law-dog. Lilli Simmons and Patrick Wilson play the O-Dwyers, the nurse and ranch foreman couple who are at the center of the story. They’re good together, and strong enough apart to make for an engaging reason to pull for the good guys. The two suprize delights are Richard Jenkins as the affable but absent minded deputy Chicory, and Lost‘s Matthew Fox as the lethal Indian fighter John Brooder. Chicory is a great character who brings unforced levity to the project with his rambling stories and silly questions. Brooder is a cool customer, a dilettante dandy who is never-the-less extremely good at murder. He reminds me of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, except even nastier when push comes to shove. They’re all great, and their interactions make the slow build tension of the pursuit a pleasure, when it could have been tedious.
This sounds like a harsh review, but only because I actually enjoyed the hell out of this film, and wish a good film had made that last big push into great film territory. You’ve got wonderful characters, a strong narrative, well paced plotting, and a beautifully shot film…and it never quite syncs up. The distinct natures of the two very niche genres make it a hard sell, as much as I would love to recommend it to fans of either genre. If you only like westerns, the gore and logical gaffes that are inherent to that type of picture may really turn you off. If you want a story of waylaid strangers trying to survive a circus of bloodthirsty psychos, much of the western pacing and mannerisms are going to test your patience. Though not a great fan of gory films (I had to walk away from the modern remake of The Hills Have Eyes, it was just too repellent for me) I have to say that I was thoroughly mesmerized by Bone Tomahawk. Perhaps you will be, too.