Though it’s unlikely to ever return to its peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, when dozens were released every year, the Western nevertheless refuses to go away entirely. Sometimes a year or two will go by without an attempt at revival, and you’ll occasionally get a megaflop like “The Lone Ranger,” but the genre’s so steeped in Hollywood history that filmmakers will forever keep returning to it, sometimes with great success.
It’s been three years since Quentin Tarantino‘s smash hit “Django Unchained,” and the end of 2015 suggests we might be in one of the more fertile periods for the Western since its golden age. TV shows like “Hell On Wheels” and “Longmire” continue to draw loyal audiences, while Tarantino returns to the genre at Christmas with “The Hateful Eight,” just as his ‘Django’ star Leonardo DiCaprio gets back on the horse, so to speak, for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant.” And that’s not to mention recent indie fare like “The Salvation” and “The Keeping Room.” And now, there’s S. Craig Zahler‘s debut feature “Bone Tomahawk,” which shares a leading actor with Tarantino’s forthcoming picture in Kurt Russell, as well as a certain sensibility. And though “Bone Tomahawk” has a less substantial profile than the awards season pictures to come, it sets the bar remarkably high.
As its great name might suggest, “Bone Tomahawk” isn’t a straight-up Western —instead, the picture adds horror elements, which get teased in the opening sequence. The movie kicks off with an image of a sleeping man having his neck brutally sliced open, and we shortly meet Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette), a couple of low-life outlaws who’ve just robbed and massacred a group of travellers. But they get theirs swiftly: after stumbling onto a burial ground of some kind, Buddy is slaughtered by… something.
Purvis gets away, but is soon shot in the leg, apprehended in a small town by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) and locked up. Local doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (“Banshee” star Lili Simmons) is asked to tend to the prisoner, but they’re both gone the next morning, while a group of horses have been stolen and a stable boy has been disembowelled. It swiftly emerges that they’ve been taken by what local Native American The Professor (David Midthunder) calls “troglodytes” —ancient, incestuous, cannibalistic cave-dwellers— and Hunt assembles a posse which includes his elderly widower deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins); O’Dwyer’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who’s crippled by a broken leg; and dapper, bigoted gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox).
The premise could be some kind of stripped-down genre picture, but part of the enormous pleasure of Zahler’s film (he’s a novelist and screenwriter who topped the Black List years back with an as-yet-unmade script called “The Brigands Of Rattleborge“) is the way it becomes anything but. It’s a film with the rhythms of the Old West —there’s an urgency to our heroes’ mission, but it’s also going to take three days to get there if they’re lucky, and so Zahler’s unafraid to let character and conversation lead the way, and to digress or pause when needed.
The result is pleasingly unhurried (the film has a hefty running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, never overstaying its welcome) without ever losing grip of the stakes or the ticking clock. Part of this is due to Zahler’s engaging writing, which carries a grimy authenticity and an almost “Deadwood“-ish love for language and gallows humour. But not every cast could pull this material off, and though he doesn’t have the marquee names that Tarantino easily summons, Zahler’s found the perfect bunch here.
Russell’s role is arguably the least interesting — he’s essentially playing Kurt Russell, and as he has for the past forty-odd years, he does a cracking job at it. That said, I do hope “The Hateful Eight” gives him more to play than “hyper-competent man of action.” Wilson appears to be playing to type as well: few actors have embodied a sort of impotent weakness in modern masculinity like he has in recent years, to the extent that its almost become dull to see him play that sort of part. Here, he initially seems to be steering into that same kind of turn, but the movie plays against it, giving him a hidden strength that belies his physical condition. It’s one of the canniest bits of using an established persona in casting I’ve seen in years, and it’s Wilson’s best performance in a long time.
It’s no surprise that Richard Jenkins is brilliant in the film (he’s consistently brilliant) but he’s particularly so here, bringing many of the film’s laughs, but also a big helping of its pathos. More surprising is that Matthew Fox is excellent too. The line in “Knocked Up” —“Do you know what’s interesting about Matthew Fox? Nothing”— seemed to catch on too much for the “Lost” star’s career, but he’s terrific here, effortlessly painting a slick, serious man with a very dark side, never quite becoming sympathetic, but never becoming a total bastard either.
The movie gets into genuine splatter territory in the final third (including the grisliest kill I’ve seen in any movie in a long time), but the tonal leap seems entirely assured —it’s only one more brutal part of the old West. But the film also uses the situation to comment not just on the genre: it has some smart things to say about both the demonization of the Native Americans in Westerns and the role of women (Lili Simmons is also excellent, if absent for much of the running time by necessity of the plot). The real meat of the story comes in a sort of examination of masculinity, with four very different examples provided, and it’s a rare film to approach the subject with sensitivity and smarts without descending into boorishness.
Zahler’s probably a writer before he’s a director at this point, but he still handles the visuals more than capably (relative newcomer DP Benji Bakshi does a great job), and for a long, often talky film, he keeps it moving along —unusually, the picture ends exactly where it should. “Bone Tomahawk” is a proper Western, a proper horror movie, and by combining the two, becomes something else entirely, and proves hugely enjoyable for it. Frankly, I can’t wait to see what Zahler does next. [A-]