Westerns have taken a turn for the grim of late, with today’s batch of prairie oaters pushing the bleak and unforgiving realities of frontier life in ways that bear little resemblance to their more upbeat predecessors. With the genre constantly on death’s door these days, a certain amount of nihilism is understandable, of course, and yet Bone Tomahawk reveals that “bleak” doesn’t need to be the say things as “despairing.” It’s being billed as a horror-western, but for the most part, it focuses on the latter half of the equation over the former. That serves it amazingly well, especially when it periodically takes a turn for the gruesome.
The presence of Kurt Russell in the lead makes things even better. This man was born to play a cowboy, and it’s doubly frustrating watching him knock it out of the park here when you consider what he might have done had the genre been in better health when his star was on the rise. He plays a small-town sheriff who leaves his office one night with a deputy (Michael Pare) watching a drifter (David Arquette) shot in the leg while trying to flee and the nearest non-drunk doctor (Lili Simmons) trying to patch up the wound. He wakes up the next morning with word of an attack: all three of the people he left behind and the evidence points ominously to a remote part of the frontier, possibly occupied by cannibalistic primitives who the local Indians have been avoiding for generations.
Naturally, he sets out on a posse to go after them – joined by the doctor’s hobbled husband (Patrick Wilson), his aging but surprisingly adept deputy (Richard Jenkins), and the local dandy/bounty hunter (Matthew Fox) who feels responsibility for the situation. The inevitable showdown takes place in the last fifteen minutes or so, and proves every bit as gruesome as the most depraved piece of torture porn. The difference between it and the likes of Hostel is how artfully we’ve been pulled in before then.
Writer/director S. Craig Zahler spends the first act immersing us in the vernacular, pacing and rhythms of life in the Old West, marked by plain-yet-elegant dialogue that brings these characters to life in rich and fascinating ways. We’re hooked before we know it, and with the prospect of a desperate rescue before them, the characters respond to their increasingly bleak circumstances with the kind of conviction and dedication that comes from men who know they have no choice. They can’t live with themselves unless they try to mount a rescue, even though they know that whatever is waiting for them at the end of their journey will likely prove more than they can handle. Bone Tomahawk draws that anxiety out in slow, methodical paces without succumbing to the nihilism that made the torture porn movement so reprehensible. It wants to be grim, but not necessarily despairing: genuinely fearing for its protagonists’ lives while still holding legitimate hope that they’re smart enough and tough enough to emerge out the other side intact.
That’s rare enough with any movie, and rarer still for a western, which has all but vanished from the big screen but isn’t going quietly into that good night. The presence of stars like Russell, Jenkins, Fox and Wilson in a project like this speaks to the strength of the material, as well as the way that video on demand provides an increasingly respectable outlet for filmmakers who want to explore offbeat material like this. Bone Tomahawk is grotesque and genuinely disturbing in parts, holding up the horror end of its equation well. But it does so without sacrificing the carefully crafted historical tone of the rest of the film. That’s tough to do no matter what genre you’re working it, and to do so in such as extraordinarily satisfying way speaks to Zahler’s commitment to his vision here. Bone Tomahawk is not for the squeamish, but those attuned to its dark currents will find a cinematic treat that won’t soon vanish from your memory.