The multi-talented S. Craig Zahler is somewhat of a Renaissance man. At 42 he's an award winning author, with works spanning various genres including westerns, science fiction and crime. He's received accolades for his novels from the likes of Larry Niven, Jack Ketchum and Joe R. Lansdale. The man is also an accomplished songwriter and musician, pounding the skins and singing in his Manilla Road-influenced metal band, Realmbuilder. Now this intriguing polymath can add "lauded feature filmmaker" to his growing list of achievements, as writer, director and composer of the fantastic Bone Tomahawk.
The plot of Zahler's debut western is archetypal - the old story of a posse of "doomed men", riding out into the badlands on a mission of rescue and revenge. However, hiding in that cliched premise there lurks a different beast entirely... and it's got teeth. The kind that like to rip into and devour human flesh.
Mashing up genres requires real finesse to pull off, resulting in any number of cinematic trainwrecks, but Zahler's fusion of western and horror in Bone Tomahawk is a thing of beauty. We've seen a few good examples before (Antonia Bird's Ravenous; J.T. Petty's The Burrowers), but I don't think it's ever been accomplished this seamlessly. There are moments and hints of the horror to come throughout the first part of the film, but when things shift gear into overt terror (at roughly the halfway point) the change in tone isn't jarring at all. The transition is so smooth because even in its purely western moments there's a constant sense of horror lurking just off-screen, as if the fragile security afforded the settler's by their flimsy walls and dim lights is perpetually threatened with destruction. Bone Tomahawk unapologetically revels in the ugly truth that the history of the American frontier is nothing if not absolutely horrific. In the tradition of westerns like Ralph Nelson's Soldier Blue, HBO's Deadwood and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Zahler is refuting the lie, perpetuated by Hollywood, that the frontier was some kind of heroic and romantic adventure playground. Rather, it was a place of violence, suffering and despair. A place of genocide, rape and cruelty.
Zahler must really have fans in high places, because his first feature boasts a fine ensemble cast. Obviously attracted to his excellent script (which has been accurately described elsewhere as sounding like a less profane Deadwood script), the film features an impressive pool of talent for such a low budget indie. The central cast of Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Lili Simmons (bolstered by supporting appearances and cameos from Sid Haig, David Arquette and Blade Runner's Sean Young) were obviously all happy to go home from this with next to nothing in their pockets. With a production budget of less than 2 million, every cent of it is very visibly up on the screen in the form of extensive location shoots, quality sets and wardrobe, and some eye-popping practical fx work.
The entire cast turn in great performances, particularly The Cabin in the Woods' Richard Jenkins and fan favourite Kurt Russell. Jenkins completely disappears into his role of back-up deputy Chicory, a damaged but wise and sensitive old-timer who provides the film with its funniest and most poignant character moments. Russell also shines in his role of weary sheriff Franklin Hunt. Rather than directly channelling John Wayne, as he did in Tombstone and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell's performance here is understated and full of subtle nuance (his delivery here reminded me of MacReady in The Thing). I enjoyed Russell's Stuntman Mike in the middling Deathproof, but it's such a pleasure to once again see the man in a terrifically scripted role in a strong genre movie*. I can't wait to see him again this coming January in The Hateful Eight.
As to the horror in Bone Tomahawk, I was knocked flat on my ass. As it turns out I'd underestimated what was in store for me in the final act, and enjoyed the finale all the more for it. As such you'll get no spoilers here, and I recommend that you try to go in as blind as possible. Suffice it to say that as the wide open vistas of prairies and sunlit hills give way to the claustrophobic confines of a rocky gulch, things quickly get very dark. And fucking terrifying. Ironically, in the same year that Eli Roth's The Green Inferno failed to impress me**, this period western has provided me with precisely the Cannibal Holocaust inspired thrills that I was hoping to get from Roth's film. The last half hour of Bone Tomahawk delves deeply into Deodato territory (with a bit of Craven's and Aja's The Hills Have Eyes thrown in), and the results are spectacularly sickening. The violence is sudden, realistic and very matter of fact in the way it's shown. The fx are top notch, and there's one gag in particular that is so unflinchingly nasty and graphic that I had to pick my jaw up off the floor afterwards. Easily the gnarliest bit of grue I've witnessed in a long time, making this movie a must for discerning gorehounds. I'm going to repeat this to make it really clear, it's this movie, not Roth's, that is the true successor to Cannibal Holocaust this year.
With Iñárritu's The Revenant and Tarantino's The Hateful Eight just around the corner, this is a particularly exciting moment to be a western fan. But honestly both of those Oscar winners had better be at the top of their game to compete with this powerful, visceral little indie from a first time director. Bone Tomahawk is an instant classic and comes with my highest recommendation.
Now someone give Zahler 50 million bucks and Roger Deakins as cinematographer, to adapt Blood Meridian as a hardcore NC-17 epic (it'll never happen, but it's nice to dream).
*Russell's other great late career performance is as corrupt cop Eldon Perry in 2002's Dark Blue.
**The Green Inferno is Roth's weakest film by far, and nowhere near as good as this year's Knock Knock.