Kurt Russell is a badass. This much we know. He’s a rough and tumble legend, one of the last remaining paragons of forthright, square-jawed masculinity, one of the last men standing of an old-school Gregory Peck heroism, neither the brawny meathead of the 80s action school nor the chameleonic character actor of 70s contemporaries like Hoffman or Pacino. He’s at once an affable everyman and a solid pillar of strength, an intelligent man of action who does what needs to be done with a sense of right and a streak of humor when it is needed. He’s a hero to geeks everywhere, thanks to the iconic roles he did with John Carpenter: the gruff and resourceful R.J. MacCready, the growling, whiskey-voiced antihero Snake Plissken, the giddily self-parodying Jack Burton. True talk: the man is a bad mutha.
His style is also perfectly suited to the Western, which makes it a surprise he’s been in so few of them; he was Wyatt Earp in Tombstone and will appear in Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipate The Hateful Eight, but that’s it. He’s a natural fit for old-west stolidity, a paragon of old-fashioned virtue, it’s remarkable more filmmakers taking on the dusty old oater genre don’t make more use of it. Then again, they can be like the filmmakers of Bone Tomahawk and utterly waste Russell’s talents — and those of his estimable castmates as well.
Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has an unexpectedly stacked leading cast; not only Russell, but it also features Patrick Wilson, Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox as well. And they are all propping a cheap, rickety exercise that would otherwise be bog-standard direct-to-video dreck littering your neighborhood Redbox. This is a cast far better than this terrible movie deserves, and they are completely, utterly left to swing in the wind, high and dry by their director.
Bone Tomahawk isn’t just a Western, it’s a hybrid horror-western, a genre more prone to awful, artificial cowpoke-meets-monster crap then genuinely good movies (like Ravenous or the too little scene The Burrowers, a great film that got lost after being dumped to DVD about a decade ago.) Bone Tomahawk just adds to the list of regrettable mashup titles, all dismal knock off cowboy drama and gory splat. It’s the gory splat that actually works best — it’s not scary but Zahler goes for it, and the visceral nastiness that he inflicts upon bodies is suitably gross and cringe-inducing. But, unfortunately, thanks to some misguided From Dusk Til Dawn-style structuring, the film is mostly Western, and it is not a good one.
The film is essentially The Searchers with monsters– troglodytes they are called here — as a roving band of cannibal cavemen abduct a sheriff’s deputy, the town doctor and a jailed drifter in the middle of the night, and a four man hunting party consisting of the sheriff (Russell), an addled backup deputy (Jenkins), an urbane former Ranger (Fox) and the doctor’s stubborn husband (Wilson), determined to come along despite nursing a wounded leg, set out across the desert to find them.
Except this particular journey is not compelling whatsoever. Zahler simply doesn’t know how to shoot a Western. There is no grit, no authenticity; it’s all backlot studio playacting. Everything is shot in cramped medium or semi-wide shots. There are no wide-angle lenses, no capturing the grandeur and majesty of the West. There is dust, but no beauty, and there’s never a coherent sense of the land’s geography. Westerns are known for their picturesque vistas, but this film lacks those. Scenes set in the town are even worse, remaining indoors, as if they had very little money to shoot a street set.
The whole project reeks of cheapness. Blocking is terrible. The actors are cloistered into group shots but not given anything to do, prone to just milling there aimlessly. Scenes run just a few beats too long, hanging on dead air as actors either just stand there or outright walk off the set. It’s the kind of amateur-hour work I’d expect from a shot-on-video-in-your-backyard cheapie starring friends and neighbors, not a major (if low budget) production starring major actors. If this was intended as some retro-ironic homage to the shoddy filmmaking of no-budget oaters of yesteryear, then it goes so far that it goes beyond homage into becoming an example.
At two hours and fifteen minutes, this horse opera proves to be a pokily paced journey across the sands, made even longer by the grunting repetitiveness of the storytelling, which mostly just tries to find ways to have Wilson’s leg-injury prove to be a detriment to the mission. But there are only so many ways you can have an actor fall over and wince in pain. Bone Tomahawk picks up once it gets to its raison d’etre, when the troglodytes appear and we get to bear witness some gnarly and vicious slaughter, straight out of an Italian cannibal movie. (There’s a death here that puts the ones in Eli Roth’s antiseptic recent Cannibal Holocaust cover band version The Green Inferno to shame.) It’s an intense, grisly climax, but it comes too little, too late to salvage the film. One wishes the troglodytes were better parsed out throughout the movie, adding a layer of suspense to the proceedings, not just clumped onto the backend as a cheap payoff for a grueling slog of a trek drama.
What is sadder is that even in its rough spots, Bone Tomahawk isn’t without its pleasures. Zahler might be a rough director for his first at bat, but the novelist knows how to write; the dialogue is often the only thing that keeps the effort afloat. The actors bite into the juicy morsels with gusto, none more so than Jenkins, who gives a wily, funny, entertaining variation on the drunken-old-coot archetype. Fox is a close second, giving a weird, strange performance in a weird, strange role, playing the role of arrogant, racist John Brooder, as an imperious, distant, spaced out dandy who sees himself as simply above the rest of the group, though, sadly Russell phones in his performance a bit as the sheriff. There are scenes of piquant, almost Tarantino-esque exchanges , such as the opening scene between Sid Haig and David Arquette, that makes you wish the direction was even stronger — or given over to someone else entirely. As it is, Bone Tomahawk is a gory and blackly comic genre mashup that held some promise but has unfortunately been made 75% bad Western and 25% decent splatter flick.