In Bone Tomahawk, novelist turned filmmaker S. Craig Zahler takes an approach to the Western genre that is bright, dusty, and watered with blood — think The Searchers meet The Hills Have Eyes.
When a mysterious drifter (David Arquette) wanders into the idyllic settlement of Bright Hope, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), an amiable old buffer and “backup deputy”, promptly reports it to Sheriff Franklin (newfound Western afficionado Kurt Russell), who brings the drifter in… though not without violence.
Meanwhile, cowboy Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is laid up at home with a broken leg when his medically skilled wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) is called away to tend to the wounded. The next morning she, the drifter, and deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) have all vanished — the only trace is an arrow in the wall.
Aided by the rakish John Brooder (Matthew Fox), the four men head out on a five-day ride into hostile territory; one that will bring them face to face with an American nightmare.
The film walks a deceptively delicate line between well-observed drama, wry humor, and gruesome horror. The latter comes to the fore as Arthur’s leg grows increasingly mangled and it becomes apparent just how monstrous their quarry is.
Unlike Tarantino’s hyperbolical Hateful Eight, the violence that surrounds these chalky, caterwauling troglodytes is treated with utter sobriety, but, unlike the self-seriousness of The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk has a surprising lightness of touch.
Aside from one excruciatingly hard to watch act of brutality (or sequence of acts) the film is neither brash nor unduly arty but simply well-made. Of the cast — the hard-headed Arthur, decent Franklin, rakish Brooder — the true revelation is Jenkins, who, almost unrecognizable as Chicory, turns in a performance that is desperately hopeful and deeply human.
With Benji Bakshi’s gritty cinematography and Zahler’s own intriguingly melancholy score, Bone Tomahawk is an imaginative addition to the canon. If there’s any justice, it should find itself a minor indie darling.