"Say goodbye to my wife. I'll say hello to yours."
It's difficult to pigeonhole 2015's Bone Tomahawk into a single category. On the surface, it's a western, with a 19th Century setting, the threat of Indians, and a story concerning gunslingers. But it's also a horror movie, at times staging vivid, gory scenes reminiscent of 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, who makes his directorial debut here, Bone Tomahawk is both unique and unpredictable, with controlled bursts of violence breaking up an otherwise incredibly talky, often meditative 132-minute motion picture. It's atmospheric work bursting with period authenticity, and it shows that low-budget westerns are not necessarily cheap or nasty. Indeed, films like 2014's The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk demonstrate that indie filmmakers with limited funds can oftentimes surpass big-budget Hollywood westerns. (Who remembers The Lone Ranger or Cowboys & Aliens?)
Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) maintains peace in the flyspeck frontier town of Bright Hope, but a grubby drifter named Purvis (David Arquette) stumbles into view, piquing the curiosity of the locals. The next morning, word spreads among the community that local doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons) has been abducted by cannibalistic, cave-dwelling savages, who also took Purvis and the town's Deputy (Evan Jonigkeit). Hunt is quick to assemble a posse for a rescue mission, but he isn't exactly spoiled for choice, with local womaniser Brooder (Matthew Fox) and "Back Up Deputy" Chicory (Richard Jenkins) volunteering for the dangerous undertaking. Samantha's husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is also determined to tag along, despite nursing a horrible leg injury that has essentially left him crippled.
Bone Tomahawk is the furthest thing from an upbeat American western, with its solemn tone of horror leeching into most every facet of the narrative. No heroics are associated with the rescue mission, finding the four men mournfully saying their goodbyes, not expecting to survive and make it back home after the ostensibly impossible fight. Zahler spends the majority of the picture observing the four men as they travel across harsh terrain, enduring the inherent dangers of the land. Character development runs rampant, with the movie successfully carving out four distinct, identifiable central characters, with full personalities being moulded. Although none of the four men are especially savoury or heroic, it is easy to root for them, and it's interesting to see how each participant is challenged throughout the journey. Particularly unconventional is Arthur, whose gaping leg wound leaves him struggling to keep up with the others, but who's determined to press on nevertheless. Bone Tomahawk is minimalist in the truest sense - it even contains practically no music - and it's not thankfully weighed down by artsy pretentiousness.
Zahler creates a sense of vulnerability, and consequently it feels as if the main characters are in actual danger and might not even fulfil their task, a masterful subversion of classic cowboy pictures. Indeed, the fun of most westerns and action movies is derived from seeing how the heroes will emerge triumphant, but Bone Tomahawk is riveting because it's unclear if any of characters will survive, let alone achieve their objective. In its final act, the movie develops into a survival horror, and heavens me, it's extremely unnerving. Zahler refuses to skimp on the gore, staging vivid scenes of cannibalistic terror, and the vocal "call" of the troglodytes is genuinely petrifying. But the flick also satisfies in its scenes of righteousness, giving the characters a chance to dispatch some of these savages in a badass fashion. Bone Tomahawk is well-made to boot, even with a reported $1.8 million budget, bolstered by focused cinematography and a sense of authority pervading most every frame.
The actors carry the movie ably, with not a dud performance in sight. This is Russell's first western since the 1993 manly classic Tombstone, and he shows that he's still a badass presence. Sporting an incredibly masculine moustache, Russell is in charge of every frame, showing he still has what it takes to be a star despite being in his 60s. Equally impressive are the other main players, with Wilson showing plenty of gravitas as Arthur, while Jenkins is unrecognisable as the faithful elderly deputy, carving out a believable, lived-in role without a trace of artifice. Former Lost star Fox is exceptional as well, despite being an odd choice for a western of this ilk.
Admittedly, Bone Tomahawk is perhaps a bit long in the tooth, with a slow-going first act in particular, and viewers may grow restless waiting for the story proper to begin. At over two hours, the film is a full meal, but it might have been more effective with a tighter final edit. Nevertheless, this is a uniquely excellent oddity which has the potential to become a cult classic. Far grittier and more measured that Hollywood westerns, Zahler places his audience in the midst of the realistic old west, far removed from the romanticised old-world Hollywood depiction that is ingrained in our minds.