Good grief. If the other violent Kurt Russell western released this year disappointed don’t let that put you off this difficult outing. Coming across like The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes, Bone Tomahawk heralds director S. Craig Zahler as a major new talent.
But that’s not altogether certain at the outset with the story taking its sweet time to settle down. Zahler seems more intent on laying on his character idiosyncrasies than he does about getting down to business: Hunt (Russell) is the no-nonsense, soup-making sheriff of a law-abiding town and Chicory (Jenkins) his rambling, dishevelled deputy; O’Dwyer (Wilson) moans about being laid up with a broken leg to his tough doctor wife Samantha (Lili Simmons); and Brooder (Fox), the well-to-do bachelor whose red hot hatred for ‘Injuns’ is matched only by his confusion over the piano player’s breakdown of song prices.
While it’s obvious Zahler has an eye for character traits it all seems like window dressing at this point. Patience is rewarded and this colouring in becomes invaluable when the story does eventually kick off, however. Samantha is abducted while treating a drifter (a wonderful David Arquette) and the finger of blame is pointed at a tribe of cave dwellers described as ‘troglodytes’ by the town’s resident Native-American. Hunt, Chicory, O’Dwyer and Brooder launch a hasty rescue mission… but not before Brooder takes his time to put on his sparkling white coat, and fix his perfect white hat. There’s a reason why it’s one hundred and thirty two minutes long.
Backing up this deft characterisation is the witty and funny back-and-forth (just this side of Tarantino’s hyper stylised dialogue in Django and Hateful), which works hard to build chemistry between the four men. Russell, Wilson, Jenkins and Fox (the latter especially with an eye-catching performance) are in fine fettle as they trade barbed comments and tough worldviews.
If the director is hellbent on creating three-dimensional characters in what is essentially a B movie chase western, he’s just as determined to make the audience flinch with unnerving violence; initially sporadic but then wholly embraced, the bloodletting that unfolds is of the nasty calibre. Zahler hints at what’s in store as he opens with a close up of a man’s throat being slit with a dull blade, complete with the sound of flesh ripping and blood gurgling. It’s presented without fanfare too: one campfire scene sees Wilson waking up to Fox being stabbed. Just like that. At times there’s no suspense to the action, no teasing out, no expectation for what’s in store.
And when the savage tribe, who have been built up to be something almost supernatural with their unearthly screams (the absence of a soundtrack further emphasises the film’s deliberately otherworldly atmosphere), finally do make an appearance all that mystery is deliberately undercut – here comes one running around the bush with its titular weapon raised.
Difficult but rewarding.