“Bone Tomahawk,” the first film of director/writer S. Craig Zahler, is one of the greatest westerns ever made. An unlikely ensemble led by Kurt Russel (sheriff), Richard Jenkins (addled deputy), Mathew Fox (vengeful gunslinger) and Patrick Wilson (his wife is among the kidnapped) head out to rescue some hostages being held by a band of unnamed Native Americans.
This quartet reminded me of those John Wayne films like “Rio Bravo,” with Wayne as the sheriff, Ricky Nelson as the gunslinger, Walter Brennan as the addled deputy and Dean Martin as the drunk seeking redemption. The difference is “Rio Bravo” and its stereotypical ilk are scrubbed-clean fairy tales whereas “Bone Tomahawk” is so historically accurate it grabs your emotions and twists them into knots—of horror and art. “Bone Tomahawk” reminds one of no less than Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Filmed entirely just 30 miles from Los Angeles and on a shoestring budget, you will believe that you are in the desert wilderness, and you will be scared.
The terrifying unnamed Indians (all native actors), covered in chalk and bone decorations, are based on theories of the annihilation of the Anasazi nation. Recent caramelized bone evidence revealed that the Anasazi were cannibalized by an unknown invading force, most likely Central America, forcing individual families to split from the tribe and flee or be eaten. White settlers in the West, mindful of Andrew Jackson’s vision of Manifest Destiny, nearly exterminated the First People. There was savagery all around. The British introduced scalping to the New World; the Indians learned well.
The sheriff and companions set out for a three-day journey into hell. They lose their horses the first night and walk on—and talk. A Richard Jenkins’ monologue as he waits to be eaten, about flea circuses (are they real?) sets the tone. The men face death yet chat about the news. It is their way of life. There isn’t a “God bless America” character in sight. The searchers of “Bone Tomahawk” sweat and bleed and accept their fates as inevitable.
Contrast the Wayne westerns where the characters’ costumes are grossly inaccurate and the horsemen are always noble and clean, there’s always a bad actor pop star breaking out in sappy song, and there’s always comic relief from gimpy Brennan or Ward Bond or Barry Fitzgerald as the drunk Irishmen.
I have never seen Richard Jenkins play so out of his comfort zone. His great films, “The Visitor,” “The Shape of Water,” and his TV work in “Olive Kitteridge” and the wonderful series “Six Feet Under” make him on of the greatest character actors in the history of cinema. Kurt Russell was born to play this sheriff, as opposed to the Wayne-like Wyatt Earp in “The Gunfight at the OK Corral.” He is noble, cranky and decent, and scarily pragmatic as in “if you die, you die.” Patrick Wilson is astounding, as the crippled husband in danger of losing an infected leg yet keeps on walking, to save his wife.
These men and the men they are pursuing have no illusions about life and a certainty about death. The film is billed as a Western Horror movie. This is not a teen slasher flick, though the last 30 minutes will make your bladder weak. Unlike actual horror films, the horror here is human beings.
“Bone Tomahawk” is out on DVD. If you let your kids watch this film, be prepared for nightmares and a Bad Parent of the Year Award. If you love good acting, westerns, genius storytelling and Hero Quests on a Kurosawa level, you will enjoy this thrill ride in the ultimate unamusement park.