Perhaps better known as a novelist, S. Craig Zahler ia an award-winning writer with novels like A Congregation Of Jackals (2010) and Wraiths of the Broken Land (2013), among others, to his credit. He’s also known as Czar, the singer/lyricist/drummer for a heavy metal band called Realmbuilder and he performed the same duties earlier in his career for a death metal band known as Charnel Valley. His first feature film as director is called Bone Tomahawk and it stars Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson in what could be called a revisionist Western/horror film that owes a lot to John Ford‘s The Searchers (1956).
Bone Tomahawk opens with two bandits, Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette) accidentally coming across the burial ground of an unknown tribe and immediately paying a price for it. Eleven days later, a badly wounded Purvis manages to make it to the sleepy town of Bright Hope, where sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) arrests and incarcerates him. Town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is called to tend to Purvis’ wounds late in the evening. Her husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), has a broken leg and stays home convalescing as she heads over to the jail to help with Purvis. Unfortunately, Purvis believed that he escaped the tribe’s fury, when in fact they’ve been following the whole time. The tribe’s members summarily kidnap both Purvis and Dr. O’Dwyer and return them back to a series of caves where the tribe lives. Deputy sheriff Chicory (Richard Jenkins) alerts the sheriff of what transpired, and he gathers together a posse of four men: himself, Chicory, a loner named John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Mr. O’Dwyer, who insists on going to rescue his wife despite his badly broken leg.
Beginning their trek with four horses, the quartet slowly makes their way to find the lair of the mysterious tribe. Shortly thereafter, their horses are stolen by some thieves and they have to continue on foot underneath a blazing sun. Of course, since Mr. O’Dwyer has that broken leg, their progress is slow, but they trudge forward regardless. It’s their journey that makes up the majority of this film. S. Craig Zahler has written some extremely snappy dialog for his actors to chew on, and the script gives them all stand-out scenes in which they can shine both individually and as an ensemble. As Chicory, Richard Jenkins gets the best lines in the film, and his witty replies to questions, along with the wisdom he imparts to the others from time to time, are delightful (Wait until you hear his discourse on flea circuses). It’s obvious he’s having a blast with his character and that comes across to the viewer. As the aptly named Brooder, Matthew Fox plays against type and shows that he has a lot more range than he’s been given credit for in the past. Patrick Wilson imparts O’Dwyer with a loving charm before he goes nuts with regret for not being able to help his kidnapped wife more quickly, and Kurt Russell looks like he’s stepped right off the set of Tombstone (1993). He’s authoritative and understanding all at the same time, and it’s nice to see him back in a western where he can truly shine.
What S. Craig Zahler’s script does with the characters is make them human, and by human I mean that all of them have a heart. One of them is a bit on the dastardly side but when you hear why, you’ll understand why he does what he does. There’s an impressive starkness to the proceedings here, and as the quartet continue towards their destination, that starkness in the script grows bigger & bigger until it nearly overwhelms the story. It doesn’t overwhelm anything at all, though; it simply sets the stage for the conflict with, as Purvis calls them, “the troglodytes.” Although nearly 3/4 of the film is done before we see them, the troglodytes are beings that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a film. I’m not gonna ruin it for you by describing them, but I can say that they are cannibals (I ended up calling them CHITs: Cannabalistic Humanoid Indian Troglodytes) and this final section of the film features one of the most brutal and savage murders I’ve ever seen in a film. It made me wince and want to turn my head from watching it – that’s how brutal it is. The cinematography by Benji Bakshi gives the film a sleepy, laconic look that feels genuine. You’ll note that there isn’t much music in the film at all, but what music you do hear was composed by Zahler & Jeff Herriott.
There is a bit of a hiccup here in this last section of the film, but it isn’t a deal breaker. At first, Bone Tomahawk was being advertised as a horror film, but the latest poster image definitely makes it out to be a Western. Although it does have a horrific final section, it’s more of a Western with some horrific elements lying in wait to shock you, but it succeeds with both. With a running time of 132 minutes, it might be a chore for those of you who were expecting a horror film, but give it a chance, and let S. Craig Zahler’s characters do their job as they make you care for them. Once the shit hits the fan, you’ll be rooting for them to survive, and you’ll be thoroughly invested in their ultimate fates. This is definitely not what I was expecting from Bone Tomahawk, but I’m glad I gave it a chance because it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Bone Tomahawk – (4.5 / 5)
Bone Tomahawk opens nationwide on October 23rd.