In Bone Tomahawk (2015), an old-timer, an invalid and a gunslinger set out across the blistering desert to rescue three innocents from a band of savage cannibals. Their mission seems beyond futile, but don’t count them out too soon: Their leader is Kurt Russell.
Yet Mr. Russell is far from the only reason to see this unexpected low-budget treat, a witty fusion of western, horror and comedy that gallops to its own beat. That rhythm is dictated entirely by the writer and director, S. Craig Zahler, a novelist and musician who flips genre conventions upside-down and cares more about character than body count. As a result, he has given us a horror movie whose monsters are withheld until the tail end of its 132 minutes, and an action movie whose longest section involves mostly walking and talking.
But what talking! Listening to the wonderfully weird and off-kilter dialogue, you can see why actors with the heft of Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins were moved to join Mr. Russell in his trek. (“It’s like a tree fell on you,” a bartender remarks to a less-than-coherent patron. “A redwood.”) Even Matthew Fox, whom I have always found underwhelming, is terrific as the worldly gunslinger with a creamy wardrobe and an itchy trigger finger. Rising to the bait of the movie’s meandering asides and pithy one-liners, the actors never oversell, instead using their bodies to convey the weight of responsibility (Mr. Russell’s sheriff), the vanity of the professional killer (Mr. Fox) and the bone weariness of a deputy who’s too old for this posse nonsense (Mr. Jenkins).
For sheer physical endurance, though, Mr. Wilson bests them all as O’Dwyer, a cowboy whose wife has been kidnapped by the deviants and whose broken leg threatens to stall the rescue mission. The kidnappers — helpfully described as inbred cave dwellers, or “troglodytes,” lest we think that Native Americans are being depicted as people eaters — lurk a three-day ride from the little town of Bright Hope, where the abductions occurred. For some, this interlude will be a richly rewarding highlight as veteran performers gnaw on their roles and Benji Bakshi’s arid photography adds gravity and grandeur; for others, it will be a longueur to be endured before the splatter commences.
When it does, Mr. Zahler doesn’t disappoint with scenes that are swift, sure and shockingly brutal. Right to the end, the movie’s idiosyncratic sensibility doesn’t flag, with villains who sew animal bones into their throats to facilitate their bloodcurdling battle cries, and a victim who meets his end in the manner of a wishbone at Thanksgiving dinner. Even the song that plays over the end credits — a frontier-ditty parody by Mr. Zahler and Jeff Herriott — is worth staying seated for. Grisly and offbeat, Bone Tomahawk may boast abysmal racial politics, but they’re also true to the terrors of the time. Of all the things we can expect from an Old West picture, cultural enlightenment isn’t one of them.
Review courtesy of The New York Times