Cannibals shake up the traditional western in this bloody but surprisingly moving genre mash-up
Bone Tomahawk is about 80 per cent straight western, written and played with a tender, earthy sincerity that’s pretty much a knockout. The other 20 per cent, however, is savage, shocking and intensely upsetting, something to gird your loins for. This genre hybrid is one of the most intrepid in recent memory; but what elevates the film is its commitment to character, thanks to a quartet of star performances that veer close to personal bests in each and every case.
Life seems quiet enough in the small Old West town of Bright Hope: the local doctor, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is laid up with a broken leg, while Kurt Russell’s doughty sheriff and his old-timer deputy (Richard Jenkins) shoot the breeze and keep an easy eye on things. No one’s expecting the swift, devastating incursion by cave-dwelling cannibals, who whisk away O’Dwyer’s wife and a back-up deputy, leaving this bewildered trio to think fast.
Joining forces with a vain, mercenary gunslinger called Brooder (Matthew Fox), they ride out on a harrowing rescue mission that will test mettles and leech resolves. In O’Dwyer’s case, the physical agony of managing the journey in bad shape is matched by a primal terror of the grief that may await him at the other end.
Wilson, who hasn’t been this good since Mike Nichols’s Angels in America, connects wonderfully with the role: he makes uxoriousness heartbreaking. The other three eye Arthur with a mix of sympathy and the knowledge that they may have to cut him loose, sooner or later – he’s brought morphine on the sly to keep a lid on the pain, but it’s slow going when they can least afford it.
Director S Craig Zahler, a novelist, musician and former cinematographer making one of the most resoundingly confident debuts of recent years, knows that the crucial move is to make us care. He’s got the astonishingly reliable Jenkins on hand as a lovable, loyal comrade with fading memories and some stories to tell; and even Fox, whose memorable impressions on film have been few and far between, digs quite deep as the least outwardly sympathetic of the four. Brooder’s the guy with least compunction about slaughter, and practically has to teach the others to set theirs aside, when they espy the exact breed of enemy – deathly pale, super-sized, and low on chit-chat – that they’re up against.
Zahler’s certainly engaging with the racist overtones of a genre obsessed by white-woman-abduction stories; whether he succeeds in rerouting these by introducing this new species of foe, or just paints a fig leaf over them, may be a matter of opinion. But the last half-hour of his film is a prolonged, Grand Guignol face-off like nothing you’ve ever witnessed in this genre, ruthlessly twanging the nerves. The Tarantinos of this world have cooked up nothing as painful-looking as one demise this film is holding in store: seriously, brace yourselves.
It’s here in the clinch that Russell’s guarded slow-burn really pays off, a reminder that few actors are this convincing at quivering, make-or-break heroics at the extreme end of the scale. You’ll be watching – at least, I was – with your hand clamped over a mouth in various states of aghast-ness. But the film’s bloodiest moments, in a real turn-up for the books, are also its saddest.