Bone Tomahawk is a film more fun to think about than it is to watch. It’s impressive too, a directorial debut for S. Craig Zahler that seems to fit perfectly into both the man’s obviously deep-seated adulation for the medium, as well as into the kind of viewing experience one would expect from someone willing to indulge in the old-timey practice of adding an initial to a name that doesn’t really need one. Not so much indebted as in thrall to a whole host of traditions, genres, and micro-niches—some of which fit perfectly into the current season of celebrating all things scary—Zahler handles each of his cinematic loves as wonderfully as a well-studied devotee should. If Bone Tomahawk is a neo-cannibal-western-thriller-romance (if the film has more in common with The Green Inferno than any other movie to come out recently), then it’s always fun to watch a filmmaker pull off the film he’s probably always wanted to make. Which Zahler seems to do his first go-round.
But Bone Tomahwak isn’t the Quentin Tarantino tribute I make it out to be—even though, with Kurt Russell leading the cast, it sort of comes off like a warm-up to The Hateful Eight. Because, for all its wandering, anti-expositional conversation and willingness to wallow in the gross minutiae of frontier life, the mechanics of Bone Tomahawk’s pace and plotting lean too hard into too many tropes to successfully subvert all of them. It makes sense what Zahler’s doing, I think—channeling Italian mondo films through the western mold popularized by contemporary Italian filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Enzo Castellari—but his upheavals of the same genres rarely yield an experience worth the difficulty.
Bone Tomahawk, after all, can be a difficult journey to stomach. In it, Kurt Russell plays Sheriff Hunt, a man in the 18th century Old West tasked with venturing into the Wild West to retrieve a fellow cowboy’s wife (the stern and commanding Lili Simmons) from the clutches of a small cannibalistic cohort of Native Americans, known colloquially (by fellow Native Americans) as “Troglodytes.” The cowboy in question is Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), an experienced frontiersman who broke his leg in an unexplained accident on some roof with the sheriff, presumably fighting crime or remedying some sort of malady—the film never totally outlines what happened, but its general opinion is blatant enough: Exploring, occupying, developing and eventually owning the United States was a near-impossible feat of human (sociopathic) ingenuity and courage.
Joining Hunt and O’Dwyer on their thankless quest is skilled Indian-hater John Brooder (Matthew Fox, who doesn’t really brood all that much) and “back-up deputy” Chicory (the always amazing Richard Jenkins, who loses himself in this affable role). Brooder, a man with dandy-ish proclivities who boasts he’s the best man for this weird, dangerous job, tends towards bigotry, and Chicory is quick to chastise the younger gunslinger. Their dynamic, while welcome, best illustrates Zahler’s most obvious flaw: His omnivorous tendencies tend to obscure any lasting points. The conversations between characters ring with creative, ultra-stylized sincerity—like Tarantino or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, the film struggles to retain historical accuracy as it approaches contemporary issues. It can get frustrating: No one really smokes, for god’s sake. At least the Man With No Name has that cigar turtleheading out of the left side of his mouth for all of eternity. Zahler’s characters seem much too modern to be true vessels of historical truth. And meanwhile, Benji Bakshi’s body-less cinematography does little to kick any narrative stalling into motion.
A successful ode to its ilk, Bone Tomahawk can be intentionally slow, meandering, punctuated by moments of viscerally abhorrent violence. One moment, in particular, earns the “cannibal” film comparisons single-handedly, a moment that I’m sure earns its place amongst Kurt Russell’s most graphic movie memories. But for its many admirable genre turns, Bone Tomahawk doesn’t seem to have much of a point. Even Cannibal Holocaust had something to say about its fellow Italian flicks; even Eli Roth seems to have an overarching opinion about what or what does not make for a social justice warrior. But Bone Tomahawk in the end makes a case for—what? The messiness of colonialism? The arrogance of a frontier attitude? The re-emergence of fu manchus? When little is thematically on the line, all that gratuitous disembowelment and faux-philosophical rambling doesn’t really add up to much of anything—besides a well-crafted exercise.
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Sean Young, David Arquette
Release Date: October 23, 2015
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.