Since the 1970s it seems that every western is a revisionist western. Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Oscar winner Unforgiven is perhaps the apotheosis, but a certain Quentin Tarantino has now dipped his toe twice in the creek and the profane muddy genius of HBO’s Deadwood has also gone a long way to maintaining the validity of genre to contemporary audiences. S. Craig Zahler’s debut movie Bone Tomahawk is a horse of an altogether different stripe though. It doesn’t so much revise the western as bifurcates it with a genre mash of dark, gruesome and bloody originality. We are on a frontier with civilization just about asserting itself in the small town of Bright Hope. The massacres have already happened, crime is rife, life is hard, but the law has arrived in the form of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell).
When we find Patrick Wilson’s frontiersman Arthur O’Dwyer injured it comes not from fighting off bandits or Indians from falling off the roof doing repairs during a storm. However, when a pair of robbers happen across an Indian burial ground, the survivor leads the brutal tribe back to Bright Hope where they attack seizing the robber, a deputy and Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), who is also the town’s medicine lady. Sheriff Hunt gathers a posse to go after a clan notorious for its bestial ferocity and rumours of cannibalism. O’Dwyer, despite his broken leg, won’t be left behind and deputized old geezer Chicory (a brilliant and almost unrecognisable Richard Jenkins) insists on making up the party too. Seasoned Indian Killer and dapper dude John Brooder (Matthew Fox) also joins up. He harboured sentiments for Mrs. O’Dwyer and speaks with a lovely grandiloquence and cold psychopathy.
Formerly of Lost fame, then later just somewhat lost, Fox more than holds his own among the veterans and creates a memorable character; Doc Holliday without the dentistry. Hampered by O’Dyer’s leg and prone to infighting and the attentions of Mexican bandits, Hunt’s posse takes their own sweet time tracking their quarry and with some beautiful cinematography by Benji Bakshi there is more than a tint of The Searchers but with a molasses rich dialogue worthy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Despite some gory splatter early on, one could be forgiven for seeing Bone Tomahawk initially as more revering than revisionist in its approach to the West. The characters are familiar but carefully drawn and the time Zahler spends with them allows us to gain a real insight and affection for them. This means that the brutality of the final act hits with shock and awe. Like Wolf Creek, this is a horror that gives over so much time to getting to know the characters that you begin to hope it won’t be a horror after all.
Their pain and fear is readily and effectively transmitted and having fully committed to the western, so Zahler commits to something much more dark and violent than most would expect or the squeamish might even want. There have been other westerns which have included the horrific – A Man Called Horse and Soldier Blue immediately spring to mind – and other straight genre crossovers have been less successful: see Cowboys & Aliens, or better still don’t. But this is something altogether original and unusual. Brilliant in its early scenes, it is thrilling in its final showdown – boldly and defiantly committing to both genres and taking no prisoners in the process. If anyone ever gets round to green lighting an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian they could do a lot worse than hire S. Craig Zahler to write and direct.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty