There’s to be no confusion over Bone Tomahawk’s intensions. The opening shot hovers over a sleeping man before a violent drifter straddles him and hacks through his windpipe. Out on the frontier, morals are significantly more expensive than life, and not everyone can afford the price.
As the opening suggests, S. Craig Zahler’s debut is a bloody affair; a grisly, bone snapping, gut-spilling experience. When two hapless fools at the start stumble into the burial ground of a small group of vicious troglodytes – a little too close to the traditional Native American menace for comfort, though Zahler just about excuses himself – they inadvertently unleash them on the sleepy backwater of Bright Hope. With three people taken captive, a shaky posse consisting of stoic Sherriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), his bumbling back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), injured Arthur O’Dwyer, husband of one of the captives (Patrick Wilson), and suave fighting man John Brooder (Matthew Fox) set out on a long ride to save them.
They’re a familiar bunch, as is so much of this world. Western conventions remain present and correct in every area. This is a film where men are men and women (woman really as its mostly just Lili Simmons) are pretty. Brave souls make heroic last stands, everyone drinks too much, Native Americans are looked down on as the lowest form of life and a whisky laden hip flask is never far from parched lips. No new ground is broken, only people by the time Zahler is done.Given the violence, gratuitous and never overdone, it would be easy to overlook how fun it all is. The screenplay is full of sharp one-liners, unexpected physical gags and absurd conversational humour, mostly a result of Chicory’s leftfield ramblings. The four leading men all prove dab hands with a punchline, though no one can match Jenkins, the stand-out from a strong bunch of performances. His softly-softly style contrasts nicely with the taciturn, boastful and besotted around him. Zahler’s funny bone isn’t constrained to his posse. Early on, a sacrilegious slob bemoans his uncivilised adversaries while scratching himself with the barrel of a gun. In the saloon, a customer points out that the pianist’s price structure actually makes it more expensive to buy in bulk. He gets tired apparently. Jokes fly in all directions all the time.
This carries into the finale, even as the horror quotient starts to go through the roof. It’s disconcerting and a little bit brilliant to jump so quickly between an extended anecdote on flea circus tricks and a man being scalped. That’s the nature of Zahler’s genre hopping beast. He throws in gore, holding back the good stuff until the end to allow for a gradual rise in tension as the riders draw near, mixes it with humour and bakes the whole lot on a generic western base.
The building blocks are recycled from the past century of cinema and the narrative arc is laid out well in advance with no deviation permitted. What could have stifled Bone Tomahawk quickly becomes a positive, removing distractions so we can all sit back and enjoy the chaos. It’s bloody mayhem, quite literally, and I couldn’t get enough.