Bone Tomahawk (2015)
03/16/2016 - S. Craig Zahler is something of a renaissance man; having published several novels, releasing three albums with his band Realmbuilder, and writing the screenplay for 2011's Asylum Blackout, he made his directorial debut with Bone Tomahawk (which he also wrote). It really is a breathtaking film, a marriage of two disparate genres that is surprisingly effective and enjoyable. Visually stunning, rich with colorful characters and substantial thematic elements, it's got humor and a (mostly) solid cast and it sets the bar high for what will surely be Zahler's highly-anticipated sophomore effort.
Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Hunt, a no-nonsense-but-not-unkind archetype of a small-town sheriff in the Old West. Hunt's got a deputy, of course, but he's also got a backup deputy: the "old man," Chicory (Richard Jenkins). I love Kurt Russell; I especially love Kurt Russell in a western. He's got it: the swagger, the delivery, the look. He's as believable an Old West Bad Ass as anyone. But, if I'm going to be honest - and I am - I'm going to have to admit that Jenkins steals the show from Russell, almost right from the start. Chicory might be old and a bit simple, but he's loyal and honest and wise. Jenkins plays him perfectly, there's not a single misstep in delivery or expression. At every moment he keeps this film grounded as a western, the sort of man you'd like to have at your side, preaching the moral code of frontier life without ever speaking it, possibly even without realizing it, but by living it.
Bone Tomahawk isn't a perfect western. I love it, don't get me wrong. But for fans of western films, it falls a bit short. I expected the horror elements to be the trip-up, but surprisingly they're not at all (we'll cover that in a bit). The problem with Bone Tomahawk is that it really doesn't feel like an authentic western; it feels like it's trying to be an authentic western but doesn't know how. I can't pin it down, exactly. I like the dialogue, but it feels not-quite-right. It might be the performances or the direction or the script itself; phrasing and verbiage just don't land comfortably. Initially, I wanted to blame Matthew Fox's Brooder, which hinted a little too strongly at Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday in Tombstone. I also thought Patrick Wilson might not have been the best choice for Arthur, the other "leading man" here. But it wasn't only these two; there were just too many moments I felt the dialogue pulling me out of that lost time and into the present with a film trying too hard. It's the reason I praise Jenkins so sincerely, and the reason this can't manage to be my go-to when I'm in a mood for a western.
Let's talk horror for a minute. It's not frequent and it's not gratuitous, but it is intense. Zahler lets the camera linger for just a little too long at each cruel offense, making you face the violence the way his characters have to. It's extreme and painful to watch, haunting. Some of the scenes near the end left such an impression I had to revisit the film - I'd forgotten most of the rest of the story. I'm not going to spoil any of it, just know it's fast and vicious and terrifying. He tastefully manages it in the tone of a western film better than his dialogue; it never once feels out-of-place. It fits, but it's beyond anything you'd ever expect.
I was equally impressed with the themes touched on here. The role of women in a healthy society, the effects of violence and fear and misunderstanding on inter-cultural relations, the power of hope and the necessity for faith in something bigger than yourself: each regarded and handled with deference. This story is heartfelt and wears the traits of one long in its teller's mind.
Bone Tomahawk is a great watch; it's fun and thought-provoking, beautifully captured and overall an enjoyable film. I recommend seeing it, I'd even recommend owning a copy for your shelf (I do, and I've watched it a few times already). It's not perfect - it stumbles a few times as a western and it's certainly no gore-fest - but there's a lot of style and a whole lot more substance than you might expect.