Beyond Fest Review: BONE TOMAHAWK is an Unflinching Western Classic
Statistically speaking, most movies are bad. That's simply an unfortunate truth. And after seeing so many average, disappointing, or outright terrible films every year, it's truly exciting when I'm sitting in a theater and I realize I'm watching something amazing. I cherish that feeling. When I'm watching a great movie, I can actually feel it recharging my love and passion for film. It's the kind of experience that, if I'm lucky, I'll get maybe three or four times a year. Bone Tomahawk delivered that feeling in a huge way. S. Craig Zahler's debut film is a perfect union of impeccable writing, controlled direction, stellar performances, and nail-biting tension. It's a once-in-a-decade masterpiece.
Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is a foreman who recently sustained a leg injury while on the job. Laid up in his home in the small town of Bright Hope, his beloved wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) is called to the nearby jail one night to operate on a mysterious drifter. Under the cover of darkness, a stable boy is eviscerated while Samantha, the drifter, and a young sheriff's deputy are kidnapped by a tribe of cannibal troglodytes that live in the hills a few days away from the town. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) gathers his hapless old companion Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the injured Arthur, and the well-dressed, debonair gentleman John Brooder (Matthew Fox) and sets out to rescue them. The rescue party soon discovers the terrifying truth of what's lurking out in the hills.
This is an unflinchingly violent film, and while Zahler rarely revels in it, he also refuses to hold back. The opening shot features a man getting his throat slit, and there are things that happen in this movie that will put viewers through the ringer. Fans of hardcore horror films will have surely seen worse, but there's a scene of violence that happens here (it's so memorable, I'm tempted to call it a set piece all its own) that left me shocked at what I'd just witnessed. Most of the film features what I'd call slightly above average movie violence — a quick disemboweling here, an arrow through the face there — but the climax features some truly nasty stuff that isn't for the squeamish.
But the violence isn't what made me love the movie — it was the exceptional script and the well-crafted characters. The dialogue is clever without being annoying or too stylized; a bartender describes the effect of a drink as if "a tree fell on ya...a redwood." You get the sense that this is a fully fleshed-out world, and all of the characters feel vibrant and alive. The film embraces its simple, efficient structure: the stakes are clearly defined and they increase as we discover the horrors of what's in store for our characters at the end of their journey.
Richard Jenkins is unbelievably good as the sheriff's "back-up deputy," Chicory. He's a lovable dimwit with a heart of pure gold, a constant optimist who's ever loyal to his friend. He's the kind of comic relief character that could easily become grating, but Jenkins plays him with a sense of innocence that's incredibly endearing, and he ends up with some of the film's best lines. (I wouldn't be surprised if he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.) Fox — an actor I don't normally like, despite my love for Lost — was surprisingly good as Brooder, the arrogant sharpshooter with a dark past. He has history with Samantha and feels responsible for her kidnapping, and his stark lack of morality causes some nice tension between him and his riding companions.
Wilson and Simmons spend just enough time setting up their relationship and making us invest in it that we care when she's abducted, and Wilson excels at playing this stubborn, decent man who grimaces his way through the movie as he battles through the pain of his broken leg and the pain of not knowing what could be happening to his wife at any second during the search. Russell brings exactly the level of gruff badassery you want. He may as well be playing an older version of his Wyatt Earp from Tombstone since the two share similar leadership qualities, a determined grit, and a noble sense of duty.
This is a hell of a directorial debut, and it makes me want to voraciously consume everything Zahler has ever created. If his future movies are anything like this one, he could easily become one of my favorite filmmakers. Lean, merciless, and totally brilliant, Bone Tomahawk is a tense, badass western with a splatter of horror that left me breathless, excited, and totally reinvigorated.