In our post-Tarantino era of cinephile directors trying to cross-pollinate mostly disreputable genres in often irritatingly ironic and superficial fashion, it’s gratifying when a filmmaker combines cinematic traditions in a way that feels simultaneously respectful and fresh. With the aptly titled Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler does just that, doling up a meaty stew of old-school Western and scuzzy Italian exploitation/cannibal movie guaranteed to satiate the appetite of any discerning B-movie fan. Instead of regurgitating tropes with a wink, he isolates what works about those genres -— wild settings, visceral shocks, memorable characters — and tempers them with a patient eye, an exceedingly intelligent script and a distinctly contemporary awareness of the uncomfortable subtexts these films once wielded.
After a brutal and mordantly funny prologue, the bloody promise of that glorious title appears to recede a little into the shadow of an altogether more staid picture. The first 90 minutes or so of its (entirely painless) 135-minute runtime turns out to be more akin to traditional pursuit Westerns like The Searchers than splatter flicks like Cannibal Holocaust. The story begins in a small town whose residents have mostly departed on a cattle drive, leaving behindbroke-leg rancher Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), stylish and amoral gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), town sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and a couple of deputies played by Richard Jenkins and Evan Jonigkeit. When an unsavory stranger drops into town one night and later disappears along with O’Dwyer’s wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) and one of the deputies, signs indicate they may have been abducted by a clan of “troglodytes,” bloodthirsty cannibals straight out of frontier myth that the town’s Native American resident describes as “a spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who’d rape and eat their own mothers.” Naturally, the men set off to rescue them, cognizant of what awaits anyone venturing too far into the badlands.
The first 90 minutes or so of its (entirely painless) 135-minute runtime turns out to be more akin to traditional pursuit Westerns like The Searchers than splatter flicks like Cannibal Holocaust.
If that premise sounds like Zahler brushing up a bit too close to some iffy racial stereotypes, he is. But he knows that as well as you do and instead of trying to skate around the issue, he wraps it into the talky stretches that make up the greater chunk of the film. It’s these interactions that make the proceedings as involving and progressively tense as they are. Zahler takes his time following the riders as they fall into the rhythm of the road, teasing out fears, vulnerabilities, eccentricities. Wilson’s O’Dwyer is the most upstanding and decent man around, a period variation on the state trooper he plays on the fantastic TV adaptation of Fargo. Jenkins’ aging Chicory appears slightly addle-pated at first but his goofy verbosity obscures but doesn’t entirely hide a restless intelligence. Russell’s Sheriff Hunt is a crusty amalgamation of all the rough-hewn heroes he’s played over the decades only with an undercurrent of weariness and guilt over all that he’s failed to prevent. And, finally, Fox’s Brooder is a fascinating mess of affectations, cruelty and bigotry, exhibit A in the film’s sneaky background thesis about the white settlers’ ignorance of everything ‘other’ likely having created and compounded the mess they’re in. The deliberately paced arguments about everything from race to ethics to their storied pasts build out characters and relationships that engender blessed emotional investment and resulting tension when these people finally find themselves confronted by the troglodytes.
It’s when that confrontation occurs that the film takes a sharp left turn into Cannibal Holocaust territory, rationing out sudden bursts of stomach-churning gore and engineering some genuinely terrifying set-pieces. Zahler’s measured direction never lets up, building up an oppressive stillness with sustained long and medium shots and refusing to switch to the usual frenetic camerawork when the carnage begins. Stomach-churning violence is framed either in sweaty close-ups or in chilly and formal tableaux. His camera is unflinching but the viewer, I can assure you, will not be.