S Craig Zahler’s movie debut, coming in the wake of numerous sold but unmade screenplays, is a highly accomplished horror western, exhibiting the kind of slow, steady unfolding, in full knowledge of a worth-the-wait climax, also exhibited by the likes of Kevin Costner’s Open Range. The major difference being, Open Range doesn’t explode into a crimson fountain of limbs and entrails, while Bone Tomahawk wades in knee deep.
Not being a gore hound, I take no great glee in the sight of an unfortunate deputy’s scalping, having a block hammered into his mouth and then suffering the final indignity of being split down the middle, but I suspect the horror fiend in Zahler took unbridled relish in this dubious achievement. Elsewhere, there are numerous dismemberments and a cathartic decapitation, as Russell’s Sheriff Hunt gets a too-late opportunity for payback.
Perhaps most wince-inducing, however, in terms of the protracted stress and strain, is the arduous journey to the location where the town of Bright Hope’s abductees are held captive, during which Patrick Wilson’s O’Dwyer, recuperating from a fractured leg, further damages it with his every step after the posse’s horses are stolen.
To be fair to Zahler, he isn’t indiscriminate in his employment of viscera. Indeed, he’s so measured and meticulous in building up suspense that he scarcely needs to be. By the time we reach the unhallowed hallowed grounds of the cannibal troglodytes (apparently it’s okay to depict Native Americans as mindless savages, just as long as they’re barely recognisable mindless savages, more The Hills Have Eyes than Stagecoach) nerves are jangling uncontrollably in anticipation of the terror awaiting our motley heroes (and to be honest, I’m glad he didn’t opt for a realistic portrayal of how people would likely react to the deputy’s death, since none of the characters would ever have recovered their wits).
And they are very much motley. Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt wears the familiar whiskers of Kurt in western mode (going back to Tombstone two decades ago), and it doesn’t need saying he doesn’t disappoint. Only that, with his current minor career resurgence, it would be nice if he doesn’t make a habit of dying in all his new defining roles. As it is, it’s his co-stars who rather steal the limelight, the odd line aside (“Well, you’re pretty angry for a guy named Buddy”).
There’s Wilson’s O’Dwyer, desperate to rescue his abducted wife (Lili Simmons, best known for Banshee), so much so that he foolishly heads off with a busted leg and spends three-quarters of the movie looking like a liability who will certainly do for their slim chances of staging a successful rescue. It’s one of Zahler’s great strengths as a writer that, in a fairly simple plot, he veers from the expected in character fates. Okay, I was expecting Russell to buy it, and Fox’s cocky sharpshooter Brooder was also unlikely to see the final frame, but the turnaround of O’Dwyer, resourceful and resolute, was still surprising, even when it dawned on me that’s where this was heading. That said, it’s astonishingly considerate of the troglodytes to give their cave a back way in, so he doesn’t have to hoist himself up a rock face.
Brooder: I’ve killed more Indians than anyone else here put together.
The Professor: Well, that’s an ugly boast.
Brooder: It isn’t a boast, but a fact.
Fox is terrific in a gift of a part, Brooder being parcelled out a procession of self-assured and pithy one-liners, even to the point where he’s looking death in the mouth (“I’m far too vain to ever live as a cripple”), and given an amusing exchange (as above) with the town’s knowledgeable Native American. And, while he maybe antagonistic and aloof, Brooder surely loves his horse.
Richard Jenkins as Chicory gives the talkative (and then some, particularly on the subject of flea circuses and reading in the bath) old-timer a touching moral code (“One of them was wearing a crucifix” he protests of the bandits shot down by Brooder; “Then Jesus should have helped him” comes the reply). There’s also good support from Simmons, and David Arquette as the throat-cutting, grave-desecrating outlaw who starts all this.
As for the troglodytes, they’re a fearsome bunch, possibly a little too acrobatic when it comes to being flattened by bullets, but with arrestingly outlandish throat adornments/implants that give them a unique (slightly Predator-esque) method of communication (part of O’Dwyer’s rehabilitation into a hero comes when he removes one and lures others to their doom with it).
Zahler has made nothing short of a first-rate B-movie here, one he elevates with fine, memorable characterisations and a keen choice of cast. It will be interesting to see which way the entirely exploitation-titled Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes him. What makes Bone Tomahawk so arresting is that it takes western characters and throws them into a horror scenario; it may lack the subtext of a Deliverance or Southern Comfort, but it succeeds as a character piece long before it’s overwhelmed in splatter. Can he do the same for the prison genre?