Set in the Old West, Bone Tomahawk opens with two bandits (Sid Haig and David Arquette) murdering a camp of sleeping men, who decide to take cover in the high ground upon hearing the approach of horses. In the process, they desecrate a bizarre burial ground and are beset by troglodytes. Arquette manages to escape and inadvertently leads the cave-dwelling cannibals to the small town of Bright Hope, where they abduct several townsfolk. The town sheriff (Kurt Russell), his elderly back-up deputy (Richard Jenkins), an educated gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and the crippled husband of one of the kidnap victims (Patrick Wilson), ride out on a hopeless rescue mission.
Marketed as a western/horror this plays out more as a straightforward western that happens to contain a few scenes of graphic violence, which is in no way gratuitous given the nature of the story. But you can’t really go by my insensitivity towards screen gore as I cut my teeth on horror films as a wee lad.
The casting is near perfect. Kurt Russell proved he’s still the man as he struts his stuff, which really should come as no surprise since he demonstrated his cowboy chops in Tombstone. Patrick Wilson once again held his own. A reliable actor, he took on the role of the average man who suffers injury and setbacks, yet stepped up to the plate when the situation called for it (in fact, his nickname should be Clutch, because he always comes through). Richard Jenkins? What can I say about the man besides he tossed himself into the role of the well-intentioned back-up deputy with his usual aplomb. Never a disappointing performance from this man. Even the smaller roles were well cast. Sid Haig and David Arquette as the bandits, Sean Young as the mayor’s domineering wife, Lili Simmons as Wilson’s doctor wife. Yup, not a bad performance in the lot… except for Matthew Fox.
I make no secret of my dislike for Mr. Fox, who has never really impressed me from his Party of Five days, through his six-season stint on Lost, up to his roles in Vantage Point and Alex Cross. He’s a wooden actor with limited range who took the role of the town badass (more educated that the rest of his posse-mates and the killer of more indians) and turned it into something rather dull.
If I’m honest, I approached this film with some hesitation. I read an early version of the screenplay while the project was caught in preproduction hell and my greatest movie viewing downfall is knowing the story beforehand. It’s the same with books. I can read a book or screenplay after I’ve seen the film with no problem, it’s the reverse that spoils the experience for me. I have friends that will read the screenplay for a film they’re about to see, only up to the third act so the movie still holds a surprise for them. I’ve tried this trick and it still doesn’t work.
I mentioned the above because I wanted to like this film better than I did. While I definitely do not hate it, I can’t really rave about it, either. For me, there was something missing from the screenplay I read, a touch of character development that I hoped would have been addressed in a subsequent draft. The story opens with a graphic and bold introduction to this world, which sets the bar high, but then it’s followed by a slowly drawn out series of events. And make no mistake, I have no problem with a film setting its own pace, and I’m not calling this film boring by any means (it is peppered with its fair share of violent scenes) but usually with slower paced projects the script takes advantage by establishing its characters a bit better to create empathy should some unfortunate event befall them later on. But because we’re dealing with stoic cowboys, old-fashioned manly men, that doesn’t quite happen, which may be rightly so, but I think it’s a shame. It affects the film’s rewatchability factor for me. And I know the screenwriter is more than capable of handling this because there are other dialogue interactions between townsfolk, quick, sharp exchanges that lets you know just how characters feel about each other and relate to one another. It’s a minor quibble, but one that nags at me.
So, should you spend your hard earned and see it? If westerns are your thing, sure, why not? This directorial debut of screenwriter S. Craig Zahler features solid performances, the violence is swift and brutal, the dialogue has an authentic ring to it (one interaction between Wilson and Fox: “If you make any flirtatious remarks in my wife’s presence… they’ll be a reckoning.” They just don’t make warnings like that anymore) and as mentioned before, it’s a simple story told simply. No complicated twists or story logic problems to cause you to scratch your puzzler as you leave the theater.
And hang around for the closing theme song, co-written by Zahler, “Four Doomed Men Ride Out.” It’s a hoot.
Bone Tomahawk gets 3.5 Homeless Shopping Carts for a solid, straightforward story and believable performances.
See ya at the concession stand.