How do you make that most maligned and unmarketable of genres, the Western, appeal to a mass audience in a way that hasn’t been achieved since 1992’s “Unforgiven?” Debutant director S. Craig Zahler couldn’t give a rootin’ tootin’ hoot about such things, as “Bone Tomahawk” is grounded in the kind of uncompromising, grim, men on a mission territory as “The Searchers,” and Clint’s aforementioned classic.
Based on Zahler’s own 2013 novel “Wraiths of the Broken Land,” a prologue sets the scene, as a couple of hapless bandits disturb a Native American shrine, leading to deadly retribution in the shape of what appears to be a fast moving, howling native. The surviving outlaw flees to the nearest town, where his suspicious behaviour results in him being shot by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and treated for his injuries by the local doctor (Lili Simmons).
The following morning, the doctor, the deputy, and the prisoner have mysteriously vanished, with only a distinctive arrow left as a clue. Distraught at the news that his wife has been kidnapped, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), who is lame having fallen off his roof doing repairs, rounds up a rescue party, including the deputy’s deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the Sheriff, and a local bounty hunter, Brooder (Matthew Fox).
Call it a B-movie or a cult classic in the making, “Bone Tomahawk” has many recognisable genre tropes plucked from multiple influences, all thrown into a dusty melting pot of dark comedy, brutal horror, and good ol’ Wild West gun-slinging, but it utilises them so well that the entire slow-burn exercise feels entirely original.
The pacing of it is integral to the payoff. Time is afforded to flesh out archetypes beyond their initial introduction, so Matthew Fox’s mysterious bigot believably goes from a figure of mistrust to someone willing to lay his life on the line for this posse.
Similarly, Richard Jenkins, unrecognisable as the bumbling widower, moves into narrative focus so naturally that by the time he is delivering an existential monologue about the illusions of a flea circus, he has so many more dimensions than your usual cowboys and Indians fodder, and is therefore genuinely affecting.
The strength of the script is obviously what drew the actors to a film which constantly belies its micro budget, and it also affords Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson their best roles in years. The former is as stoic and weather beaten as you’d expect, barking orders at the group when they begin to squabble, but he imbues Sheriff Hunt with a gentle patriarchy and undying loyalty to these men and their cause, that empathy for his fate is a given. Wilson also excels, finally playing a straight-up decent man, temporarily handicapped, emasculated in a world of men, utterly likeable.
The genre gear change on which the film has been marketed, but which doesn’t exist purely as a gimmick, is truly horrific when it arrives. Hints are dropped that it might be something supernatural, with mist descending and unnatural noises (the sound design is terrific) puncturing the darkness, so going in knowing as little as possible will only benefit the impact of the journey. Just brace yourself, because whilst it isn’t gratuitous, it is disgusting, with some imagery that’ll stick with you for a good while.
This is a real find, rewarding in almost every aspect of the film-making process. As long as you saddle up with patience for the long haul, unaware of where it’s taking you, “Bone Tomahawk” is a gruey little treat.