Saddled up behind the camera for his debut film, Bone Tomahawk, is the celebrated writer of gritty genre fiction S. Craig Zahler. Similar to his work on the page, the movie is a dark genre tale that attains a profound bleakness before the curtain closes. It's an offbeat mashup of Western and horror elements, but don't expect a lot of gun-slinging bravura or monsters jumping out of the brush – Zahler is more interested in the characters on horseback than in cheap thrills. The horror bits bookend this two-hour-plus film, so the meaty center is reserved for the audience to get to know the motley crew at the heart of the tale: a geezer, a gimp, a well-dressed snob and a heavily mustached gunslinger.
The monsters I speak of are troglodytes* – vicious, almost superhuman cave dwellers who don't take too kindly to David Arquette and Sid Haig messing up their burial ground. When their sacred land is disturbed, these troglodytes (supersized, primeval men who communicate through a cool bone growing out of their throats) start snatching people from the nearby town of Bright Hope for their cannibalistic buffet. The sheriff of the town, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), gathers up a ragtag posse to find the troglodytes' lair and rescue the locals.
Leading up to the search, Zahler introduces the main characters (Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins) through often-comedic situations of frontier life. As they begin their search for the troglodytes, the characters are fleshed out as human beings the audience can genuinely care about. Some moments on the trail are somber, some downright funny, but it's always engaging. I could've watched them interact for hours. Zahler's script is filled with rich and weird dialogue that sounds like a reinvention of talk from classic Westerns. Richard Jenkins, as old-timer Chicory, gets some of the best lines ("I know the world's supposed to be round, but I'm not so sure about this part"), but everyone gets their turn to deliver sharp dialogue.
All this dialogue, characterization and strong chemistry develops over the first 90 minutes, so when they arrive in cannibal cave-dweller territory, there's a lot of gravity and the stakes feel high. Some will find the buildup to the horror elements tedious; others will find it gratifying to watch this tight ensemble sink into their characters. Hell, even Fox delivers as dandy cowboy John Brooder. I dug my teeth into Lost like everyone else, but never believed a word that came out of Fox's mouth. While he's always seemed like an insincere actor to me, he's terrific as the highly educated, buttery-dressed man with the itchy trigger finger.
The rewarding Western elements transition smoothly into the world of horror, like the sun moving behind a cloud. And yeah, things get dark and startlingly violent. The brutality comes swift and Zahler never holds his camera back from some of the most gruesome scenes I've seen in some time. Despite the gore and monster-movie elements (the trogs act like Predator to a degree), Bone Tomahawk manages to stay surprisingly grounded. There's no big money shot or "oh shit" moment for the audience to pump their fist to accordingly. It ends on a satisfyingly melancholy note.
* Zahler distances his film from racial politics and the barbaric social injustices faced by the Native Americans during the Westerns era by calling his villains "troglodytes." His baddies are truly savage, not just called "savages." There's a part where a professor clarifies to the posse that they are not Native Americans, but subhuman monsters. The racial politics of the frontier are inevitable when making a film like this, but I think Zahler does a successful job making this about an unequipped posse taking on unrealistic movie monsters.
4 out of 5 stars