Director: S. Craig Zahler
Stars: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson
3 (out of 5) Globes
“Bone Tomahawk” is less a revisionist Western than a realistic Western, which is to say it’s (eventually) stomach-churningly violent and nasty, much like the real West. Descriptions of this gorehound oater as “The Searchers” meets “The Hills Have Eyes” are all too accurate. But it’s realistic in another, even more boundary-pushing way: It captures how living in that time and place was almost certainly mind-numbingly, spirit-crushingly, death-wishingly boring. There are sights in “Bone Tomahawk” that would make Takashi Miike projectile vomit, but midnight movie folks will have to wait for them — and then be careful what they wished for.
Not to say that “Bone Tomahawk” is itself boring. It’s just slow, sometimes painfully slow, at the speed of life that is going nowhere and not fast. There is a thick coat of dread from the start. The name of the central hotel is no less than Bright Hope, which all but begs them to be hit one night by a gang of mysterious ne’er-do-wells. And so they are, leaving one disgustingly mutilated and two other missing. Among the kidnapped is the goodly wife (Lili Simmons) of Arthur (Patrick Wilson), a man currently bed-ridden with a healing tibia. Nonetheless, he insists on hobbling along with the rescue party, filled out by a dandy marksman (Matthew Fox), an old-timer (Richard Jenkins) and a Sheriff, played by Kurt Russell in a damn fine beard.
“Bone Tomahawk” knows its Western tropes well and seeks to carefully subvert them. The token saloon is empty save for the main cast, and includes downer details like a drunken piano player (“Back to the Future”’s bulletheaded principal James Tolkan) with a wacky pricing system. There isn’t much merriment in its version of the Old West, and lots of silences. The journey to the fearsome impregnable fortress is long and exhausting, so dull the characters almost bicker just to keep themselves awake. Director S. Craig Zahler sometimes seems to be daring the audience to do the same, shooting everything in clean widescreen long takes with actors encouraged to take their sweet time, often doing next to nothing.
It might seem like it’s rubbing our faces in how it’s removing the pomp from a genre prone, at least stereotypically speaking, to easy heroism, jaunty music and the boring parts cut out. But it’s still up for delivering the genre goods. In fact, the morality is more black and white than in “Shane.” The good guys, like Russell’s Sheriff, are very good, the bad guys are literally subhuman and the morally wishy-washy ones don’t meet a nice end.
Back to the bad guys, though: they’re not stock Injuns but rather an indigenous tribe, whose ways are scarily savage and feral. They’re painted white and they don’t even speak; they wail in animalistic howls. The mutants in “The Hills Have Eyes” were more human, and we’re freely encouraged to cheer for their destruction, even before they treat one minor character to a death more gross than everything in another Russell-and-great-beard film, “The Thing,” combined. Even that bit, though, isn’t shot for gorehound delectation. It’s filmed plainly, just like everything else, and mostly from the inside of a jail cell made of thick wooden bars, which obscures certain money shots. Despite combing two genres, it’s far more modest than that suggests, sometimes content to simply ride the coattails of Russell’s grizzled gravitas, sometimes just sure that what it’s doing is both dissecting an old, mostly dead film genre and giving us a fine, if offbeat, addition to its roster.