Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Written & Directed by S. Craig Zahler
A strange drifter finds his way into the small town of Bright Hope. He arrival is followed by the murder of a stable boy and the abduction of two citizens. All that is left behind is an arrow with a head made from bone. A local native explains this belongs to a tribe of men who are not “Indians” but from some other breed of man. Sheriff Hunt takes off with a trio of men, each with their own reason to follow the trail, to rescue their fellow townspeople. They encounter the hazards of the wilderness along the way not knowing that an ancient horror awaits them in the Valley of the Starving Man.
Right away Bone Tomahawk makes it clear that this isn’t going to be a sweeping epic in the vein of John Ford or Sergio Leone. This film exists much closer to the work of Sam Peckinpah, a bleak and near-nihilistic view of the untamed West. It doesn’t completely fall into a mire of hopelessness, but it doesn’t flinch when it comes to depicting brutality.
While Kurt Russell as the sheriff gets top billing, I find the film is closer to an ensemble effort. This is a fantastic line up of actors (Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox). Fox is definitely the lesser of the four but still holds his own as an enigmatic figure in Bright Hope with a personal vendetta against natives. Richard Jenkins does a remarkable job making his interpretation of the Gabby Hayes character without resorting to parody. It is a more grounded portrayal yet still fulfilling the role of comic relief and pathos.
One aspect I liked most about the setup of the film is that Bright Hope is not filled with able-bodied men. We learn they are off on a cattle run, the same run Patrick Wilson was intended to be the foreman of. Wilson was injured after falling off his roof and is on crutches for the entirety of the film. Russell’s sheriff is definitely past his prime, and his backup deputy is Jenkins, a dimwitted grieving widower. Fox is about the only “able-bodied” character, but we learn his psychology is his weakness, his obsession with being a sort of fancy dressed dandy and neuroses over the natives.
The film walks a fine line between western, horror, and comedy. There are numerous character focused asides that are witty and revealing. The time spent developing the characters and establishing relationships and conflicts is the key to the audience’s investment. Bone Tomahawk will surprise viewers as it starts out with some grisly violence before settling into a quieter pace. When the posse finally does find their lost townspeople the intensity ratchets up to an incredibly dark point that confirms this is not a typical Western.