“What would Devin watch?”
I have to imagine this question being asked every day on the set of Bone Tomahawk, a movie that pushes some of my most very specific buttons - the gritty, masculine Western and the gonzo cannibal movie buttons, in particular. A genre-smashing confluence of an oater and an eater, Bone Tomahawk is an absolute blast even as it changes tones and takes on a profound gory grimness in the end.
It’s hard to make Westerns in the modern era because our sensitivities have changed. Indians, the standard enemy of the cowboy, is off the table unless you’re looking to explore the history of American social injustice. That’s great, but sometimes you just want an easily identifiable group of bad guys who operate in unknowable and almost superhuman ways. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler has found his solution in Troglodytes, albino mutant cavemen who are so badass even the most war-like Indian tribe keep clear of their territory. When Sid Haig and David Arquette stumble upon a Troglodyte burial ground the wild warriors - six feet tall, alabaster skin, bizarre bone pipes growing out of their throats - end up in conflict with civilization. When they kidnap some townspeople local sheriff Kurt Russell rustles up a posse and goes on a bloody rescue mission.
The first hour of Bone Tomahawk is an often funny story of men on the frontier. Zahler takes his time with the set up, establishing the town of Bright Hope and the people who live there. Then, as the film switches into The Searchers mode, he takes his time with the characters as they hit the trail, allowing his company of actors the space to create human beings that you truly like and care about. This might have been my favorite stuff in the film, and I could have watched an entire ten season TV series about the relationship between Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt and Richard Jenkin’s sweetly bumbling and dim-witted deputy Chicory.
Russell is why you see this movie, and he delivers the kind of no-nonsense heroics you want from a bushy-mustached Sheriff Kurt, but it’s Jenkins who steals the entire film. You don’t get Oscars for cannibal Westerns that go day-and-date to VOD, but in another universe everybody is talking about what an incredible performance Jenkins gives here. It helps that you know him from other roles, and you know the kind of innate intelligence he carries in his eyes. In Bone Tomahawk all of that is turned down, but Jenkins absolutely turns up his lovability and his humanity. What could have been an irritating comic relief character is instead a complete man with a deep, innate sadness and a surprising competence. It makes sense, though - this is the frontier, and even the dopiest guy in town has to have more than a few survival skills.
Matthew Fox is part of the posse, and he surprised me more than any other actor in the film. Generally I don’t like Fox - everything he does seems impossibly insincere, and I’ve never found him very warm as a presence at all. But Zahler’s casting is masterful here, as Fox is playing a dandy gunslinger who is full of bravado but, as the movie goes on, also a cold, steely ability. What seems in town like an unearned swagger ends up being a riveting self-confidence that is based on reality… and a little bit of racism. Fox’s John Brooder has more than enough qualities to keep him from being a straight-up hero, but he’s certainly a character you grow to care about.
Patrick Wilson, ever emasculated, rounds out the posse. His wife has been snatched by the cavemen and he insists on coming along for the hunt, even though he shattered his shin a few weeks back. Self-medicating with opium and unwilling to lag behind, Wilson’s O’Dwyer is the biggest strain on the posse as they hump over dangerous terrain and run into bandits.
The four men together make a terrific ensemble, with the Russell/Jenkins chemistry being especially unique. As they come to the Troglodyte territory all that bonding, all the flowery, period-appropriate dialogue, all of the jokes and all of Kurt Russell’s laconic masculinity creates a group that you like, and for whom you fear as they take on their prehistoric prey.
Bone Tomahawk is The Searchers meets Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s also got quite a bit of Predator built in. The Troglodytes don’t talk, they communicate by howling through their bone pipes, and to do that they throw their heads back and flex their shoulders and cut the figure of a Predator crying into the jungle night. They’re vicious and they bisect a man in a kill scene as graphic and painful as any I have seen in recent years. They’re bizarre, true savages, and the hints we get of their home life point towards something akin to The Hills Have Eyes. You could imagine these things somehow merging back with humanity and producing Pluto and his gang.
The pacing and writing and cinematography of Bone Tomahawk is a joy, and the Western moseys perfectly into the horror elements at the end. My biggest problem with the film comes at the end, where it feels like the climax just isn’t big enough, like we needed something slightly more over the top. Considering how over the top Zahler brings the film that could be just a reflection of my own mental issues, but I wanted one last big bang at the finale.
Horror Westerns are rare, which is too bad. I love the combination of terror and cowpokes, the way the hardened men and women of the frontier deal with the unknown and the fucked up. I love the two aesthetics that Zahler is playing with here, and I love the way he allows these terrific actors the freedom to inhabit the skin of their characters… until a Troglodyte comes along to eat that skin, that is.