One of the hardest things for a movie to evoke is a mounting sense of dread. There are so many horror and thriller films that rely on violence or staccato blasts of music to put the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s much harder to make the audience feel unsafe by seemingly doing…nothing. Bone Tomahawk is a film that excels at this. The set up is fairly simple and more than a little derivative: the doctor and a local deputy in a small western town have been abducted by savages so a search party sets out to rescue them. The party consists of the the sheriff (Kurt Russell), his drunken deputy (Richard Jenkins), the doctor’s husband (Patrick Wilson), and the slick gunslinger (Matthew Fox). Most of the action consists of these four men traversing the desert landscape while talking, arguing, planning, and sleeping. But this isn’t a boring or slow moving film. First time director S. Craig Zahler uses wide angles, moments of silence, and tight reaction shots to remind us that terrible danger is always lurking right outside the edges of the frame. Bone Tomahawk is many things, a rousing western, a moving character study, a witty human comedy, and a gruesome horror film, but it is first and foremost a masterclass in suspense.
Rarely have I seen a directorial debut this assured and controlled. A few mainstream critics have accused Zahler of being a little over indulgent because of the film’s length. It runs two hours and ten minutes and that tells me that any critic unwilling to sit and pay attention for that length of time has a limited attention span. The film is long because Zahler gives his characters room to breathe. He wants us to get to know them, to care about them, and to root for them before he pulls the rug out from under us and unleashes hell. It’s an extremely effective build up.
Zahler’s influences are obvious. The set up recalls The Searchers almost immediately, focusing on four men who have no use or respect for the lifestyle of the savage ‘indians’ who surround their hometown and only see them as something to be eradicated. Thing is though, in this story, they’re sort of right. Bone Tomahawk does no favors for the portrayal of Native Americans in cinema but it’s not trying to. This is a singular story, solely concerned with its own telling and uninterested in outside influences. Were certain bands of Native Americans this savage and depraved? Maybe, I don’t know. All I know is that their portrayal works for the purposes of the film. They’re presented here as almost supernatural monsters and that makes their imminent threat all the more terrifying.
We wouldn’t be so scared of them though if we weren’t so invested in our four protagonists. Kurt Russell will be appearing in another western later in the year and I wonder if he agreed to make this film simply because he figured he better make use of his beard. Whatever the reason, Russell is sensational. He’s been accused of aping John Wayne more than once (even made fun of himself for it in Death Proof) so it’s interesting to watch him completely shed that persona with his characterization here. Wayne was always assured of himself in films like this: confident, taciturn, and one note. That’s not the case with Russell’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt. Hunt is a kind man but also world weary and tired. He has an idea of what needs to be done but no set plan. Much of the time, he’s just acting on the fly and exuding a sense of confidence he does not actually have. Sure, he acts cool and calm when announcing the rescue mission to the town but you can feel the deep unease seeping out through his voice. He knows there’s an excellent chance he or all of his men won’t make it back alive. That doesn’t stop him though, nor does it stop him from engaging his drunken deputy in conversations that aren’t entirely appropriate for the task at hand.
Which brings us to Richard Jenkins’ Chicory, a drunken old fool of a deputy with more wisdom than you’d expect. Jenkins has long been a wonderful character actor who does not get enough credit and in a just world, he’d be receiving a best supporting actor nomination for his work here. Take his quiet subservience to his boss. Whenever he has a thought or idea in his head that needs to be pointed out to the Sheriff, he always prefaces it with, “It is the official opinion of the deputy that…” In a lesser actor’s hands, that could come off as an annoying character quirk but Jenkins makes it feel truthful and comical. His admiration for his Sheriff is sort of adorable and noble, as are his troubles in life. One of the film’s best scenes features Jenkins bemoaning to Russell about how he can’t figure out how people can read a book in the bathtub. “Why are you so concerned with reading literature in the bath”, Russell grumbles and Jenkins’ heartfelt explanation as to why not only endears him to the viewer but to Russell as well. So much so that when Russell offers a solution involving a music stand, we feel as joyous as Jenkins does.
Patrick Wilson is solid and engaging as the doctor’s mournful husband. His wounded leg provides some the film’s more agonizing scenes. It’s pointed out to him more than a few times that he has no business being on this quest but he insists upon going anyway. When our heroes lose their horses and are forced to walk, it’s torturous to watch Wilson try to keep up with the rest of the posse. We can’t help but root for him though and that’s due to the depth of feeling Wilson creates for the character. Early scenes between him and his wife establish them as a loving and clever pair so, of course, we want to see them reunited. And it’s interesting to watch his mind work as the film develops and the situation worsens. He makes a gruesome discovery in the final act that repulses us even as we want want to stand up and cheer.
I’ve long been a fan of the three actors I spoke about above so the biggest surprise here was Matthew Fox. I’ve never though much of him (Lost lost me after one season) and was honestly worried he was going to sink the movie but boy oh boy was I wrong. Fox’s character is the most reprehensible of the four. He brags about the amount of savages he’s killed, makes it clear to Wilson that he would happily like to bed his wife, and makes some very questionable moral decisions. This is standard in a Western. You’ve got to have the one asshole. What’s fascinating though is the way Fox develops the one-note prick stereotype into a three dimensional character. Two of the film’s most harrowing sequences place Fox front and center. The first sequence is moving and tragic and Fox manages to bring quiet dignity to a scene of genuine despair. The second is suspenseful and blood soaked and it’s impressive the way Fox manages to make us chuckle amidst a lot of carnage.
And keep in mind, ‘carnage’ is the name of the game for the final act. The first two thirds of the film are measured and quiet, filled with authentic dialogue and wonderful character work. Then things take a very dark turn. It’s surprisingly not dissimilar to Eli Roth’s most recent failure, The Green Inferno, which featured a tribe of primitive cannibals. What’s different is the execution. In this film, we care about what will happen to the protagonists and the horrific actions of the savages are there to create suspense and tension rather than humor and gore. I also appreciated the fact that the character dynamics didn’t change once the shit hit the fan. Why would they? These four men knew what they were getting into from the get go. They may be horrified by what they see but that isn’t going to change their mission.
It’s a shame that a movie like Bone Tomahawk isn’t going to be seen by a wider audience. I’ve written about this before, a few times actually, but it still depresses me that so many great movies are being released on VOD with little to no fanfare. This is a movie that would play like gangbusters on a big screen with a huge audience screaming and howling. The shots of the landscapes alone would be worth the price of admission. But alas, that is not to be. Garbage like The Last Witch Hunter and Our Brand is Crisis (lord, that title) are playing on millions of screens while Bone Tomahawk is playing on a few hundred. Don’t let the release fool you. Don’t succumb to the mistaken impression that if the movie was good, it would be playing everywhere. That just isn’t the case anymore. More and more great movies are being released on VOD and more and more bad ones are infecting multiplexes. Maybe we can change that though. So, instead of going out to the theater this weekend, rent Bone Tomahawk on Amazon or iTunes or whatever and enjoy one of the best films of 2015.