Written by: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You know, I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part."
When the phrase “high concept” was coined, you have to wonder if someone didn’t peek ahead into the future and catch a glimpse of Bone Tomahawk. One of the purest models of the form, S. Craig Zahler’s film reimagines what The Searchers might look like if it starred Kurt Russell and then swiftly collided into The Hills Have Eyes. There are great pitches, and then there’s “Kurt Russell battles cannibals in the Old West.” Don’t trust anyone who isn’t immediately excited by it, or maybe check their fucking pulse.
Luckily, the appeal doesn’t stop at the kick-ass pitch: Bone Tomahawk is a hell of a movie, one that’s been precisely tuned to my particular sensibilities. You know that feeling when you’re convinced a movie has been made just for you? After spending only a few minutes with Bone Tomahawk, I was sure someone in Hollywood had incepted my brain and extracted it from deep within my subconscious. This is what love between a man and a movie looks like: just total, absolute synchronicity. I was prepared to go wherever it wanted to take me.
To put it succinctly, Bone Tomahawk drags you out in the middle of fucking nowhere but strands you with an awesome group of hard-asses (and would-be hard-asses). When a cutthroat bandit (David Arquette) makes his way to the town of Bright Hope, he unwittingly brings hell with him in the form of a troglodyte tribe after he desecrates its burial mound along the way. As retribution, the tribe descends on the town’s jail, abducting the bandit, the town doctor (Lili Simmons), and a deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) in the process (a poor stable hand isn’t even that lucky, as his remains are found strewn about a barn). The only recourse for sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) is to assemble a posse to track down the missing persons.
Don’t mistake the combination of a thin premise and a lengthy run-time (the film clocks in just north of two hours) as shagginess. While it’s true that Bone Tomahawk is rather deliberate, it is so in every sense of the word, as Zahler’s measured pacing works in concert with the desolate atmosphere to create a suffocating sense of helplessness. As the group slogs through a week-long journey, the possible futility of their quest begins to tighten like a noose. Without resorting to explicit, obvious signifiers (musical cues are sparse, actual action even more so during this stretch), Zahler creates an ominous sense of desperation. The immensity of this journey—its space, its time, and its stakes&襏becomes quietly menacing because it’s clear that these guys can do fuck-all about the situation. The best they can hope for is to arrive at the troglodyte cave and find everyone intact; the worst is something you feel they don’t even want to acknowledge.
As a defense mechanism against this possible suicide mission, the four men spend most of their downtime bullshitting with each other. Despite the looming threat of an albino cannibal tribe, Bone Tomahawk is mostly a hangout western. Character interactions are carved out against the rugged landscape, each of them contributing to the film's lived-in quality. The word “luxuriate” shouldn’t apply to a movie where people lose limbs, but Zahler provides plenty of space for everyone to stretch their legs and craft a compelling set of hard men. In some respects, Bone Tomahawk is vaguely reminiscent of Predator, only it’s been stripped of that film’s bombast, as Zahler hones in on a more insular strain of machismo before mangling it from the inside-out.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Russell emerges as the most forceful of these personalities: upstanding but gruff, Franklin Hunt is righteous but has no qualms about shooting a fleeing bandit in the leg without warning. If he’s doing John Wayne, he’s taking his cues from the likes of Rio Bravo, and that film’s sense of camaraderie faintly echoes throughout Bone Tomahawk. It most obviously resounds in the bond between Hunt and his doddering deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a well-meaning but slightly in-over-his-head companion whose unquestionable loyalty is an asset. To continue the Rio Bravo comparison, Jenkins is riffing on Walter Brennan’s Stumpy as the group’s loquacious comic relief, and it’s a goddamn masterful turn, full of quiet dignity and gentle wit. Even though he’s still mourning his wife, Jenkins doesn’t have to lean into schmaltz or sentimentality to sell the character’s pathos.
Chicory functions as a lynchpin of sorts by grounding Bone Tomahawk in a humanity that raises the stakes exponentially. This might be a “cannibal Western,” but you come to genuinely dread the bloodletting, even as it pertains to Hunt and Chicory’s two companions. Both Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson look to exist as mincemeat to add to the body count, yet become compelling in their own right. The former is John Brooder, a sort of dandy badass whose brusque persona makes perfect use of Fox’s actual off-putting aura; Fox frequently brings a weird, off-kilter energy to his performances, and he taps right into that here by adding a loose cannon element to the proceedings.
Likewise, Wilson is once again an ineffectual male forced to confront something horrific, a craft he’s honed so much in recent years that his turn here feels like old (but effective) hat. Slowed down by a recently-broken leg, he nonetheless insists on tagging along in the hopes of recovering his wife from the cannibal tribe. Wilson may sneakily give the most effective performance here, as he unexpectedly graduates from third wheel to the group’s last, grizzled hope.
Far from inviting you to revel in this group’s comeuppance for treading into dangerous territory, Bone Tomahawk instead puts them through so much hell that you must admire their doggedness. Like a classic, two-fisted B-movie Western of old, Bone Tomahawk deals in black hats and white hats—the good guys are unwaveringly courageous in the face of even the most gruesome of fates, and the film doesn’t shy away from their sense of duty.
In one of the more effective scenes, Russell attempts to comfort a man drawing his dying breath because it’s the right thing to do—even if he’s not sure he’ll actually be able to exact vengeance on these troglodyte motherfuckers. Honestly, I could have spent the entire movie simply watching these four interact during both harrowing scenes and those that are less so; it’s how they react to the former, however, that reveals their up-by-the-bootstraps frontier mentality. Difficult decisions are required on this journey, but they’re not played as big, sweeping moments—sometimes, a guy’s bum leg dooms him to being left behind to brave the arid, menacing landscape alone, and that’s just how it is.
Impossibly, these relatively quiet moments are the film’s most effective. There are times when you’re lulled so deeply into this group’s daily routines—like setting up a camp—that you’re genuinely shocked when actual danger intrudes. Bursts of violence in the most literal sense, these moments are often stark and staggering, a perfect fusion of jolts and gore. I can’t remember the last time I reacted with genuine shock to a dismemberment. Bone Tomahawk had me gasping aloud—and this is to say nothing of one of the ghastliest disembowelments ever put on-screen. Zahler pushes the brutal savagery of the Old West to its most horrific extremes once he guides his characters into cannibal country, where the violence is blunt yet oddly restrained. Even as intestines spill out and gobs of squibs explode, it never feels over the top or even exploitative—it’s just the natural course of violence in an untamed land littered with entrails and severed limbs.
You can almost argue that the climax is almost too restrained. Sticks of dynamite make the journey but go undetonated, and it’s interesting to note that the final acts of violence are only heard from a distance. To the end, Zahler is more interested in chronicling what’s left of his characters, their hellish ordeal becoming something they wear on their weary faces in the film’s final moments. It says more than further brutality could, perhaps. The decision is in line with the spirit of Bone Tomahawk, a film that’s more absorbed with people than it is with destroying them, believe it or not.
Yes, it’s a Western with cannibals, but it somehow feels like the most refined version of that pitch, as Zahler (an author by trade) creates rich personalities through nigh-lyrical dialogue, stopping somewhere just short of the flowery vulgarity of Deadwood. Do you need any further convincing that this should also be your new favorite movie?
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