A few years ago KFC graced us with the “Famous Bowl”, a concoction of mashed potatoes topped with corn, chicken nuggets, brown gravy and cheese. It was weird. And it sucked.
Director S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk is kind of like that. It’s a concoction of genres and sub-genres–Western, Horror, Black Comedy, Splatter Film and Road-Trail Journey. It, too, is weird. But unlike the “Famous Bowl” it’s pretty damn good.
The plot is nothing new; in fact it harkens back to classic cinema, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers. Here Mr. O’Dwyer’s (Patrick Wilson) wife (Lili Simmons) has been abducted by savages —not Native Americans, the script is quick to point out, but troglodytes, a.k.a cave dwellers–inbred, cannibalistic ones, at that.
Now as bad as that is (it get’s worse, way worse) Mr. O’Dwyer is an invalid, recuperating from a gruesome compound fracture to either the tibia or fibula. He is an earnest, reverent man who loves his wife dearly (she’s a doctor, no less) and no bone protruding through the flesh is going to stop him from rescuing her. To that end a search party is formed. The leader of the party is the honest and just sheriff (Kurt Russel), his dutiful deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a dandified, taciturn gunfighter named Brooder (Matthew Fox).
At it’s core Bone Tomahawk is grindhouse exploitation, although there are plenty of sophisticated flourishes most readily apparent in the superb ensemble cast. Though each character represents a dyed-in-the-wool type, the actors play sincerely and naturally off each other and, consequently, I grew to care about each of them, especially “back up” Deputy Kory. Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins gives a bravo performance as the kind-hearted, ageing lawman, who at first glance seems a dullard, but I later realized is really a child-like poet instead.
Zahler allows time for character development and, though this is the strength of the piece, he’s been criticized for it. Personally, I loved the dialogue driven first three quarters of the film. The Zahler penned script is funny, clever and nuanced. The men talk about women, food and politics. I never once checked my watch.
Although the film opens with bloodshed and there is violence through out, it is largely implied. The third act is where the gore and body count–and excellent special effects– finally kick in.
The troglodytes are something to behold. They’re huge, mostly naked and are clearly fascinated with bone body jewelry. They communicate with each other in Neanderthalian grunts (not so unordinary) and battle cry wails emitted through a whistle device, constructed of bones, embedded in their larynx (quite extraordinary).
Oh, and did I mention the troglodytes are cannibals? Yeah, are they ever. They scalp this one guy (once again, not so unordinary considering the subject matter) and then–keep in mind he’s still alive–they turn him upside down and literally pull him asunder by wrenching his legs down (absolutely, freaking, horrifying). The poor guy’s guts gush out in a hemorrhaging heap.
By this time I was invested in the decent and capable, but manfully blundering searchers and the way smarter, but still damsel in distress, lady doctor. I hated to see any of them go–especially the way of the wishboned guy–but despite it’s mashup sophistication and superior ingredients, Bone Tomahawk is still a horror movie. And a horror movie demands what a horror movie demands–sacrifice.