(S. Craig Zahler, 2015)
I knew Zahler was a novelist before I checked his bio. The first two acts of Bone Tomahawk are full of scenes that play out much longer than they would in the majority of movies; Zahler lets us watch his characters talk the way a novelist would. Not in that Tarantino way, asking us to marvel at the wit and quality of the dialogue, but in a manner designed to increase our knowledge and understanding of the characters. We spend an hour and a half in their company before the stakes are suddenly raised, and - unlike in so many horror films - we actually care what happens to them.
That means that the first half of the film does feel a little post-Tarantno, a little like Deadwood (which Zahler has criticised in interviews), a little lazy and self-indulgent. Zahler's writing is fine, but it is his cast that sells the dialogue. Kurt Russell always feels like a natural fit in Westerns, and he is excellent here as an unflappable, confident Sheriff. Patrick Wilson presents yet another in his series of precise studies of masculinity under fire, before emerging in the climax as the true hero of the film. Matthew Fox turns the soulfulness of his presence into a shield, playing an amoral, unlikable killer with unplumbed depths. All, however, are outshone by Richard Jenkins in the Walter Brennan role, the loquacious old-timer who can barely keep quiet for 5 seconds and whose mutterings often contain great insights. These four set off on a journey ("Ride out to their doom!" as the hilarious, right-on-the-money end credits ballad would have it) after Wilson's nurse wife and a young deputy are abducted from the town jailhouse one night.
Their abductors are identified by the town's token Native American as a nameless, inbred tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes who live in caves days ride away and who are fearsome and savage. The men's journey is slow and detailed, their personality clashes and interactions containing longueurs and entertainment both, before the last act when what has been a lightly quirky Western with some comedy transforms into a brutally gory cannibal horror film. Zahler fills the script with interesting details; from a half-crippled Wilson's dialogue with God as he prepares to enter the troglodytes valley, to the cannibal's having whistles of bone sewn into their throats to aid their howling communication, to Fox revealing his back-story as he faces death, this is a beautifully imagined world which makes light of its modest budget.
Only the somewhat flat photography and constant reliance on mid-shots ( there is rarely a sense of the physical scale common to westerns here) let it down a little, while the spring use of a score helps in that last act when the tension starts to rise. Generally, it feels startlingly unique for a mash-up of such familiar genres, and is an interesting, entertaining watch throughout, questioning tropes and mythology as it goes.