It takes a lot of balls to make a western these days. Well, not just these days. Ever since the 70s really, westerns have kinda been a dead genre. Now and then a western will sneak out and catch on, like Unforgiven in the 90’s or Django Unchained in 2013. Usually, you have to be a big name director with some clout to be able to make a western, since they tend to be a bit expensive. Period clothing, animal control, sets and so forth. So Clint Eastwood and Quentin had a serious career of successes before they could mount such movies. But recently I’ve noticed an uptick in westerns on the indie front. Movies like The Salvation or Blackthorn. And they manage to wring some good stuff out of the genre, even with a limited budget/scale. And even within the western genre, there has been a significant lack of the genre that expands out of the simple adventure kinda mode. So when it came to my attention that Kurt Russell, cinema God, was gonna be starring in a horror western this year, it dawned on me that this was a year that was pretty much made specifically for me.
Bone Tomahawk has been described as The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes, and that is a comparison that is almost too accurate to not have been the pitch that got this made. When citizens of the town Bright Hope get captured by a group of cave people, Sheriff Kurt Russell rounds up a posse to go get them back. Among the group is Richard Jenkins as the Sheriffs good natured but dim deputy, Matthew Fox as a cocky dandy with a talent for killing, and Patrick Wilson as the injured husband of one of the captured townsfolk.
So right off the bat, it has that Searchers kinda story of a group looking for the savages that took their people. Without that old school racism of making all Natives look like evil incarnate. By switching it to this almost prehistoric group of cave dwellers that time had seemingly forgot, it taps into something more elemental and dances around any time specific prejudices. With that, you also take away a bit of the moral ambiguity that came from the Searchers. Now with me, ambiguity is something I tend to gravitate towards. But in this one, that’s really not something they’re going for and not something that should be in it. It’s got that Hills Have Eyes sentiment of the sadistically evil group that has no sense of mercy. It’s about the civilized going into an uncivilized land and fighting for survival.
The movie is very structured into 3 parts. Not just 3 acts, but it feels like 3 different movies that tell one complete story. The first act is all character, setting everyone up and giving them personality and stakes. The second act is the journey, the posse on the road to the captured. And the final act is when shit gets real and the movie stops being a western and becomes a survival horror. For the first two thirds it feels like a classic western, complete with the gorgeous imagery and grizzled men bonding over the hunt. But the switch is seamless and you never feel cheated. It’s a flawless handling of tone. Cause when the movie turns, it goes hard as fuck. Almost shockingly so. Not only is Hills Have Eyes an apt comparison, but so is Cannibal Holocaust. Or for those not as in the know with cinema, look
recently to Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno. Not just in story but in violence. I’d heard for a while that Green Inferno was unbearably brutal, but this movie turned my stomach a lot more than Eli’s flick. There’s one particularly death that far surpasses the big, highlight moment of brutality in Green Inferno. And this blending of tone perfectly is thanks to the director, a rookie, who also wrote the piece. For all these indie directors getting the bump to a massive blockbuster after one movie, I’d kill to see this guy take a crack at something in the vein of Predator or something. Cause the guy has a lot more chops than many of the guys getting tapped for these epics. Hell, he should get hold of The Dark Tower.
Not only as the work behind the camera excellent, the cast is fantastic. Obviously you got Kurt, doing some damn fine work in the John Wayne role. He’s a principled, honorable man who will get the job done at all costs. Matthew Fox does the first good work of his career since Lost ended, playing the cocky dick with aplomb but giving him plenty of humanity to make him likeable enough you don’t wanna see him die. Patrick Wilson is his reliable self, bringing the stubborn husband to life. But the real knockout has to be the almost unrecognizable Richard Jenkins. I knew it was him and was kinda stunned to see his performance. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen from the man. He helps make the role believable and not fall into cartoon, which it easily could have been. And he has excellent chemistry with Russell. And they all handle the dialogue like true pros, cause Zahler gives them some meaty dialogue. It’s very poetic, in line with True Grit. These men are verbose and can turn a phrase. And we learn about these guys from their words without it being expositiony. Truly great writing.
When I heard about this movie, I knew it was up my alley but I was surprised to see how up my alley it is. It is so immaculately executed on every level that I have to be in awe of it. For a first time director to just knock it out of the park so completely is stunning. That he wrangled this excellent cast together and got excellent work out of them is even better. And that it’s all in service of such a brilliantly simple story is the icing. Without Fury Road in the year, this would be my number one. Kurt is having a great year, being as he is also in Tarantino’s new western. I didn’t think a western would be able to go toe to toe with Tarantino’s new movie as western of the year, but here we are. See this immediately.