On paper, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk has all the makings of a film I’d adore. Western? Check. Cannibal cave-dwellers? Double check. Kurt Russell? None more checked. Russell is one of the very few stars who would reduce me to a blubbering, starstruck blob if I were to meet him. That the film doesn’t quite work for me is frustrating.
The basic premise is simple and classic, like a splattery version of The Searchers. A band of Indians— Excuse me. A band of cannibalistic troglodytes raid the small old west town of Bright Hope, abducting two of its citizens and the jailed bandit that desecrated their burial ground. From there, Bone Tomahawk plays out as a straight up men on a mission western. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) assembles a small group of men to track down the troglodytes and rescue the prospective pieces of “long pig”. These four men are our main cast, and we spend most of the running time with them and them alone.
Luckily, they are to a one well drawn characters, played perfectly. Patrick Wilson is the injured husband of one of the abductees in a performance that is equal parts grit and vulnerability. I love that what easily could have been a lazy and distracting bit of conflict is nipped in the bud when Sheriff Hunt immediately assumes he will be joining the party, bum leg or no.
Matthew Fox is very good as a foppish gun fighter with a murderous hatred for Native Americans, and he is an effective foil for the rest of the cast.
As you might expect (or maybe I’m just biased), Russell is wonderful in his role; just perfectly cast. Hunt is a great mixture of grizzled integrity and kindness.
However, the real standout is a barely recognizable Richard Jenkins as Chicory, an old* widower and back-up deputy. During the course of the film his role as comic relief peels back to reveal hidden competency, intellect and a deep morality. I would enjoy a spin-off film where Chicory solves mysteries, disarming suspects with a Columbo-style facade of genial dumbness.
Bone Tomahawk’s script is very good and often hilarious. The dialogue is artful while retaining its period authenticity, like a much toned down version of Deadwood without all the cussin’. Early in the film there’s a meandering conversation between Russell and Jenkins about soup (among other things) that cleanly establishes both men’s characters and their relationship with each other. The rest of the film sticks with this, letting its scenes play out naturally, in no hurry to dive into its bloody conclusion.
A bloody conclusion it is, too, with one of the most brutal deaths I have ever seen in a motion picture. I’m pretty jaded when it comes to that stuff, and hoooo boy. Brace yourself.
Zahler’s got a great premise, a great script, and a great cast that he has directed very, very well. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have as tight a grip on visual storytelling. At the beginning of the film I thought he was consciously aiming for a minimalist style, but as it progressed I began to think he just hadn’t put much thought into how the film was shot. I don’t want visual flashiness, but a basic concern for the effect of the imagery. You can only see so many hand-held, medium shots from eye-level before the whole thing just feels flat. The near total lack of a score, something that could have worked like gangbusters in a different context, doesn’t help matters. If there was a purpose to that disconnect between the narrative and how it was presented it eludes me, and in the end I found it very distracting.
So yes, this movie is frustrating. It gets almost everything right, but drops the ball on one thing that is extremely important. As you may have gathered, I don’t think Bone Tomahawk is a bad film. I think it’s great in most ways, but it isn’t great as a whole. It’s merely good, when it could have been so much more.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
*Russell calls him “old man” despite being only four years younger.