What starts as a patient round-up-the-posse Western takes a sharp turn into gore in Bone Tomahawk, a sturdy genre effort that plays like discount John Ford slowly transforming into elevated Ruggero Deodato. It’s the meatiest Western since Ravenous, if you catch my drift. Novelist S. Craig Zahler makes a fun, sturdy directorial debut, dry pulp with droll dialogue, amused by its own straight-faced absurdity, taking an unblinking view of exaggerated pioneer struggles. (When questioned about trespassing, a man waves his gun. “We got permission.”) We start in a tiny frontier town with the darkly funny name of Bright Hope. There a small collection of standard Western types (a sheriff and his deputies, a bartender, a doctor, and so on) are confronted with a crisis. Native Americans have abducted three people. When townspeople gather to mount a rescue a local Native gravely informs them the arrows found at the crime scene aren’t of any tribe. They are from horrifying cave-dwelling troglodytes who feed on human flesh, too terrifying to even contemplate.
Setting up a tribe of monsters as the villain is a clever-enough way to skirt the whole slaughtering-Indians tradition of the genre, making its antagonists an unstoppable weird macabre force long-hidden in the darkest corners of their remote landscape. With a nurse (Lili Simmons), a deputy (Evan Jonigkeit), and a mysterious stranger (David Arquette) missing, and probably on the troglodytes’ menu, there’s not a moment to waste. The sheriff (Kurt Russell, with impressively elaborate old-timey facial hair) rustles up his troops – a dandy Indian hunter (Matthew Fox), a handyman with a broken leg (Patrick Wilson), and a well-meaning doddering older man (Richard Jenkins) – and rides for the mountain range ready to fight. Although the creeping danger the largely unseen tribe of dehumanized monsters here could’ve been plumbed for more metaphoric weight, it’s plenty dreadful as is.
It’s a simple story on a one-way path to a bloodbath. For most of the film, Zahler takes his time, following the men as they make their way across the prairies on a three-day journey by horse. The cast has great dusty chemistry, with enough fault lines of interpersonal conflict to convince us that they might be their own downfall before they even make their destination. It’s a good old-fashioned Western hangout, men on the trail building campfires, worrying about bandits, and on the watch for everything that could spell certain doom for their rescue mission. It’s meat-and-potatoes filmmaking, understated taciturn gristle with Benji Bakshi’s soft digital scope photography flickering by candlelight or blazing under midday sun. It’s reasonably convincing oater material, with horses and rifles and crackling muscular repartee between men who look good in hats and mustaches.
Russell is the standout, looking for all the world like he’s spent his entire life ruling over his little corner of America with forceful quiet confidence. The rest of the cast falls in with fine eccentric details. Zahler takes a sideways approach to characterization, finding a little community of pioneers who have clearly survived in large part only through luck. Most of them are none too quick-witted. It’s a pleasure to listen to the characters speak, in unpredictable folksy turns of phrase and wry surprise. One character eventually sighs, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.” Zahler undercuts heroism by denying the standard strong silent types their easy victories. He creates a scenario in which any or all of the characters could very well be dead in the dirt by the end. It’s a great ooze of dread in what could’ve been more standard fare.
So much of the film’s success rests on the payoff. That’s not to say it's not reasonably entertaining to be on the trail with the posse, but that’s thin, derivative setup. It is in the final third that Bone Tomahawk grows so brutal, wicked, and surprising in its staggeringly violent vision I almost don’t want to spoil it. Still, if you hear the words “tribe of cannibal monster people” you can guess where it’s headed: pure tortuous horror presented in organ-splitting detail. It’s all the more startling for following a quietly and slowly developing gallop across the wilderness that gets more mileage out of its period detail and talented cast’s clever lines than its action. The result is a satisfying genre hybrid, two parts The Searchers, one part a Wild West Hills Have Eyes with howling grey humanoids, tusks giving them scary guttural yelps, jumping out eager to hack off bits of our cast. An ensemble of great scenery chewers finds itself in danger of getting chewed. It’s tough to stomach, but for those who can choke back the bile, it’s a darkly enjoyable experience.