Baiting his audience with a death scene that’s beyond all nightmares at the climax of his Western horror Bone Tomahawk, writer-director S. Craig Zahler keeps us entertained by keeping things slightly off leading up to it. The burlesque begins with a prologue featuring the unlikely duo of B-movie regular Sid Haig and David Arquette as robbers stumbling across the wrong Indian burial ground, where the former gets killed by a haunting figure, sending Arquette running to Kurt Russell’s podunk town, Bright Hope, where the tongue-in-cheek action only increases.
Bright Hope is the kind of place where a drunken saloon pianist gets away with marking up his price the more you ask him to play, and Russell’s no-nonsense Sheriff Hunt keeps a doddering old hayseed around as his backup deputy. The town’s peace and quiet is ruined when Arquette rolls in to promptly get shot and imprisoned by the suspicious Hunt. While he’s being tended in his cell by local nurse Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the mysterious savages who killed Haig and are hot on Arquette’s trail sneak into town and kidnap the both of them, along with Hunt’s young deputy, and kill a local stable boy for good measure.
Hunt rounds up a posse consisting of Samantha’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), Matthew Fox’s white-suited gentleman John Brooder, and lastly his hopeless backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to go to their rescue, going off bearings provided by a Westernized Native American who identifies an arrow at the jail as belonging to a group of savage “Troglodytes” and warns the men that they’re going to their deaths.
From here Zahler indulges in Western genre tropes, watching the men set up camp and see how they track their quarry while their personalities bounce off one another on the open plain. The actors do a splendid job sharing the lead, and the movie as a whole is helped by the fact that they can’t agree how to play it. Russell and Wilson play things straight as the stoic sheriff and devoted husband, but Fox lays it on thick as a haughty ladykiller, calling to mind the wise-assery of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. Meanwhile, Jenkins gets so lost in the role of Chicory that you’d think people were ready on set to turn him around should he wander off camera.
Jenkins’s incessant, gullible chatter is the saving grace of a script that nearly sinks itself for being too knowing. Zahler is determined to have audiences feed off the quotability of his dialogue, but his attempts at throwback slang come riddled with bolded keywords, adopting a recognizable formula wherein he transforms currently used idioms with a slightly fancier word substituted here or there. Instead of adding color to the story, it threatens to rob his characters of their identities, so having Chicory around to gab about the logistics of reading in the bathtub adds a layer of real sweetness that the others can build on.
Jenkins also serves to dispel the tension when the horror part of Bone Tomahawk comes roaring back in the final act. Zahler shoots with an unflinching eye to the very end, maintaining a laconic Western mode of action during the grisliest, most tense scenes, and standing at far enough of a remove that nothing feels too gratuitous. The gory details are splayed out for all to see, but Chicory, whose mind gets diverted by the smallest of details, is there to swim against the current, his innocence serving to remind all involved just what they’re fighting to achieve.
It could be argued either way whether Zahler resists the worst of his impulses when it comes to violence or dialogue, but the ensemble largely pull off this story of old-fashioned masculine bravery subverted by a modern subtext equating their bravery with stupidity. Thanks to committed performances all around, and Zahler’s ability to tone down the self-awareness when it best suits the story, Bone Tomahawk can confidently march into the cult canon with more than just a grisly death scene to recommend it.