The great of thing about the rarefied genre of “cannibal Western” is that it’s sells itself right up front. Do I even need to provide you with more than the picture of Kurt Russell’s whiskers and the phrase “cannibal Western” to get your interest in Bone Tomahawk? The title is Bone Tomahawk, for Chrissakes! Would a synopsis even help? They live in the West and then cannibals happen and bone tomahawks are thrown. And it is glorious.
The town of Bright Hope is home to rancher Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons). Arthur’s bedridden with a shattered shin when Samantha is called away by John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a former suitor and hired gun to deal with a drifter (David Arquette) that Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) shot. However, both the drifter, the deputy and Samantha are kidnapped by savage cave dwellers seeking revenge on the drifter for trespassing. With limited time, Hunt leads a posse of Arthur, Brooder and his deputy’s deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to find and retrieve them from the “troglodytes,” setting up a bloody finale.
The dementedly violent antics of Tomahawk come from the mind of musician and novelist S. Craig Zahler, who wrote and directed this $1.8 million indie. Remember that opening paragraph where I said “cannibal Westerns” sell themselves up front? Yeah, well, I may have overstated the market outside of myself. Despite and because of his miniature budget, the stature of Zahler and the quality of his screenplay attracting top talent, starting with Russell.
Russell, a film icon who’s been mostly absent from the screen since 2007 outside of 2011’s Touchback and 2013’s The Art of the Steal before appearing in this year’s billion-dollar grosser Furious 7 and the upcoming Quentin Tarantino flick The Hateful Eight, returns to a genre he was born to play. Wilson has perfected the role of hapless-but-relate-able hero (he’s played it in Watchmen and the Insidious films) and Matthew Fox continues to fill up his post-Lost career with interesting character turns. Even when they don’t work (*cough*Alex Cross*cough*) it’s admirable his attempts to stretch his acting ability.
The real standout however is Richard Jenkins as the lovable sheriff’s deputy’s deputy Chicory. He is a simple man, long widowed who insists upon acting the sidekick to Hunt. His naive but sweet demeanor serves a light the film holds onto, contrasted with the suitably-named Brooder’s cynical outlook.
Zahler’s great achievement with this unabashed genre film are the characters he paints. His low budget allows him to film and edit as he pleases, allowing scenes to breathe with character interactions that paint them better than expository dumps ever could. The film is longer than the average B-movie for this reason but it’s key for the film’s success. The story is a study in controlled escalation. Each Act builds on the other and opens the door to the next. Structurally, its a beauty to behold.
The attempt is made early to acknowledge and deal away with the racial implications of white man’s world being attacked by historically-inaccurate Native American stereotypes by casting the cannibals as hated even by the Indians. The troglodytes as they’re called are a subhuman albino race that communicate in clicks and roars from a protrusion in their throats, their movements recalling the titular Predator from the 1987 classic.
In a landscape of predictable entertainment, Bone Tomahawk stands out as carefully-constructed piece of genre filmmaking, a love letter to an earlier era of exploitation flicks grounded by the capable actors. A fascinating question once the credits roll on this film is the question of what will S. Craig Zahler do next?