S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” is something of genre mash-up, one that begins as an offbeat western in classical garb before transforming into horror for its third act, so much so that by the time our principal characters wind up in a cave wearing their old west garb it almost feels like the original “Star Trek” where members of the Enterprise wound up in the old west. It’s not that this change in tone fails, exactly, but that this film is notable much more for its aesthetics than its narrative, and so when the film tries to turn itself into a meditation on vengeance as it wraps up that narrative, it stalls out. Still, the wind-up is pretty damn good, on account of across-the-board solid performances and dialogue that is colorful, wonderful, absolutely askew, of the time, baroque and really, really funny. Example: “Would you like some coffee?” “No need to stay awake.”
That line is proffered by Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), who as the film opens is sitting sullenly on his couch, nursing a leg he wounded after falling off his roof. “I advised you not to work on the roof during the storm, but you went up regardless, because you had a notion to get things done,” says his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons), who winds up kidnapped by a gang of cannibalistic Indians which triggers a rescue party. Well, Indians is not exactly the term the film provides. Indeed, the Sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), calls on a local Indian for help gauging the situation and the Indian shows up looking like a man of industry and quickly dismisses the kidnappers not as Native Americans but inbred troglodytes. Indeed, they are less like Indians, frankly, than bizarre ash-covered aliens, unintelligible and cannibalistic, a unique clique that literally sews animal bones into their throats as a means to unleash macabre war cries.
And that’s what “Bone Tomahawk” does best – it creates. Consider the Learned Goat, the saloon in town where the bartender, played by fantastically dry Michael Pare, seems perpetually on edge, always waiting for some sort of trouble to befall him, less interested in dispensing advice then keeping his counter clean, and the elderly pianist (James Tolkan) sleeps at his keys, exhausted and seemingly near the end of his earthly run, comically running counter to the town name of Bright Hope.
Russell’s Sheriff is the weary, stone-faced epitome of the genre, but that’s sort of the point, and Zahler surrounds him with a stable of characters, like the first deputy (who always refers to himself in the third person) played by Richard Jenkins with a wisdom cultivated from a world-weary good humor. He joins the rescue party, along with O’Dwyer, played by Patrick Wilson almost like a pesky boy scout, his refusal to be left behind played more like a recurring joke than heroism. And the perfectly named Brooder, played by Matthew Fox in a regal all-white get-up, is sorely self-impressed, a cowboy version of Leo giving Gaga the side eye.
These middle passages of the four on the trail of the troglodytes are slow and wonderful, reveling in the petty disputes of a few disagreeable men, as if their male pride continually makes them forget just what it is they are actually on the trail to do, and often pausing simply to document the agony O’Dwyer undergoes simply to make this trek.
Everyone in this group has, for one reason or another, sworn vengeance against these evil Indians, a classical western ideal that “Bone Tomahawk” seeks to skewer, “Searchers”-style. But the movie mis-calculates by letting its heroes off the hook too easily, a means to give the conclusion more action rather than wry ruefulness, and turning the troglodytes into uncomplicated villains. Nevertheless, the film’s exceptional wordplay still gets the idea of revenge’s hollowness just right. In this case it is Samantha who supplies the wisdom, getting a line that stands with the best of exposing the western mythos. She hollers: “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.”