Written by S. Craig Zahler
Directed by S. Craig Zahler
To describe Bone Tomahawk as a “horror-Western” is good shorthand, but could be a little misleading. The film indeed has horror elements but novelist turned screenwriter/director S. Craig Zahler seems more interested in spending time with his four main protagonists as they travel across country, letting their different personalities and world views, and the harshness of the terrain, challenge them on their journey. It is only in the final act where things get really weird, but there seems to be a disconnection between the two different aspects of the film. By getting to know the protagonists for two thirds of the film their battle at the end should make their lives feel more imperilled, or perhaps the journey would allow enough time to properly explore the themes of encroaching civilisation that are clearly present in the screenplay. Unfortunately, while still entertaining and engaging, the film can’t quite dig deep enough for the entire enterprise to feel more than the sum of its parts.
After his partner is attacked by a mysterious figure while encroaching on sacred ground, wandering criminal Purvis (David Arquette) arrives in the town of Bright Hope, much to the chagrin of local town sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell). When more mysterious figures raid the town at night and kidnap Purvis and local nurse Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), Sheriff Hunt has no choice but to gather a search party to go find her. Consisting of Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), Deputy Sheriff Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and local gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), the posse realise they are most likely headed toward certain death as they quickly learn the kidnappers are from a tribe of troglodytes, cave-dwelling evolutionary mutants that are the stuff of nightmares.
What is most surprising about Bone Tomahawk is how it is much more of a Western than a horror film. After a cold open that establishes the mystery and threat, Zahler’s script dials back on the throttle and takes its time establishing the four main characters and then follows them every step of the way as they journey out into the wilderness. There are minor episodes that occur while out on the trail that keeps the action ticking along, but for the most part Zahler is happy to sit with the characters around the campfire and listen to them talk. The dialogue is superbly well written, with Zahler expertly handling that 19th century frontier patois and draws a lot of humour from it. But because the dialogue is so sharp and witty it is easy to overlook that not a lot is actually being said. A lot of screen time is given to these conversations, which are entertaining and do allow for back story, but in the grand scheme of things, feel a little aimless.
What makes these conversations and character moments sing though are the performances. Kurt Russell is his usual stoic, take charge self, bringing gravitas to every scene. Patrick Wilson is fine as the pious cowboy, determined to find his wife no matter what the cost. Matthew Fox is almost unrecognisable as the dandy gunslinger Brooder, whose dark and violent past he is trying to reconcile with himself. But the real star of the film is Richard Jenkins as the batty old former Civil War medic Chicory. He is the one who provides most of the talking and has the funniest lines, and Jenkins imbues him with an enormous amount of pathos and helps make the dialogue scenes as enjoyable as they are. It’s just a little unfortunate that the conversations don’t scratch that little bit deeper in order to pull out the inherent themes of the film that are not explored as richly as they probably should have been.
‘Do you know the hardest thing about living on the frontier? It’s not the Indians, it’s not the elements…it’s the idiots.’ This line, uttered near the film’s climax speaks volumes about the major theme at play in Bone Tomahawk, that of manifest destiny, that the encroachment of civilisation on to the frontier is unearthing countless terrors and turning men into killers. That men like Sheriff Hunt feel it is their duty to march off into the unknown to protect their corner of the world without stopping to think of the consequences, only being concerned that it is their right, is a fool’s errand. This comes into sharp focus when they reach the troglodytes’ home territory and the film ramps up into a high gear of violence and bloodshed. It is as if the men have landed on another planet or entered some parallel dimension where humanity has been warped into the darkest possible iteration, which represents their own version of manifest destiny, of pure animalistic instinct stripped of any semblance of the trappings of the “civilised world”.
Yet while these themes are very present, it doesn’t feel like they are reinforced enough to make Bone Tomahawk more than just a very decent Western. There is a lot to like in the film however, the performances are top notch, with a great return to the genre from Russell and an excellent turn by Jenkins, and the final act ratchets up the weirdness to a brilliant (and extremely gory) level which makes it more unique. There’s just a feeling that the film could have been a little bit more considering its run time. Apparently the script that Zahler shot was only the first draft, and it really shows. While his background as a novelist brings a very writerly style and pace which is interesting, perhaps just with a little bit of a tightening in the second act, the film could have really been something extraordinary. As it stands, Bone Tomahawk is a terrifically fascinating and well-acted Western with a (literally) killer finale but without the connective tissue to let it soar.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from October 7 – October 18. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.