The month-long celebration of Patrick Wilson continues with S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, a brutal, modern send-up to John Ford’s The Searchers. While John’s made it no secret he’s a big fan of Zahler as both a writer and director (though I don’t think he’s ever gotten the chance to write about him on the blog), I have to admit I approached this film with a bit of trepidation. For one, it has a reputation for having one incredibly gruesome scene and I wasn’t sure I’d want to see something like that. Moreover, Zahler’s devil-may-care reputation made me wary investing my time in a potentially unsavory character. Is he someone who’s rejected Hollywood and embraced the taboo to aid in his storytelling or does he actually have a warped view of the world? Bone Tomahawk makes me believe the former.
This horror western was Zahler’s directorial debut, but he had been trying to make it as a filmmaker for a long time. After graduating from NYU as a cinematographer, he got off to a bright start by having one of his scripts make it onto the Black List and even get Park Chan-wook attached to it. But that movie never happened. Neither did his adaptation of Robotech, which would have starred Tobey Maguire. Between 2006 and 2015, Zahler says he had more than 20 scripts optioned or sold without anything materializing in Hollywood. So he decided to make it happen for himself. So that’s cool… If anyone has an actual source on how he was able to make this movie happen with this cast, I’d love to read it.
The point is, Zahler made the movie he wanted to make: a dark, brutal story that might subvert your expectations in more way than one. It’s not a short movie, clocking in at over two hours, and much of that time is spent watching four familiar western archetypes bounce off each other. But Zahler has enough talent as a writer and his actors are good enough that I wasn’t ever board with their endless conversations. At the forefront is the grizzled, super-confident Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell, balancing the levelheadedness of Tombstone and the glorious beard of The Hateful Eight). He’s backed up by his elderly deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), who may or may not be in way over his head. Then there’s Mr. Brooder (Matthew Fox), the local womanizer and racist with a gift for killing. Finally, we have Mr. O’Dwyer (Wilson), the honorable homesteader who came out west seeking opportunity. What could bring these four together?
Troglodytes! When a couple of bandits (RIP Sid Haig) stumble upon an ominous burial site, only one of them is able to escape alive (it’s David Arquette). He makes it as far as the small town of Bright Hope, where he catches the eye of the local deputy. He and the sheriff confront the bandit, arresting him after the sheriff shoots him in the leg. They bring a doctor but he’s drunk, so Mr. Brooder is sent to fetch Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the next best option. She leaves her husband behind, as he is still recovering from a badly broken leg. The next morning, Sheriff Hunt discovers that the troglodytes had come into town, killed a stable boy, and abducted the bandit, a second deputy, and Mrs. O’Dwyer. The sheriff declares he will bring them back and Mr. O’Dwyer, despite his leg, refuses to let Hunt go without bringing him. Chicory also volunteers to go because he feels guilty that it was the other deputy, and not him, that was in the jail that night. Brooder also steps up, stating no one in town is more qualified when it comes to killing.
And that brings me back to my original concerns about this Bone Tomahawk. Sixty years after The Searchers, could the story of a band of white people relentlessly hunting Native Americans work? Especially in a movie that had the reputation for being, to use a loaded word, savage? Well, I think it does? There’s a scene with “the professor” (Zahn McClarnon, from Fargo season two with Patrick Wilson), a Native American man who really emphasizes that the troglodyte clan are cannibal monsters and totally different from other tribes, even though white racists probably can’t distinguish between them. That might not be enough for some people, and that’s fine. But for me, I get it, Zahler’s making a genre film and a horror film and he wanted creepy cave monster people.
Speaking of creepy: shit’s creepy. The troglodytes can’t speak, instead making terrifying howling noises that made me think of this real spooky Aztec thing. And that’s really just the tip of the spear when it comes to these guys. And they’re not even the only threat that our band of heroes will face on their heroic rescue mission. The Old West is a rough place, and as I alluded to above, the real fun of this movie is watching four men who’ve made they lives out there come together and compare their worldviews. Each of them is complex and the story refuses to give into easy tropes, which makes them all the more interesting. No matter how… divisive… this movie maybe gets, I think most people can agree on that.