One of the problems with the modern Western is the seemingly desperate need for creators to seem superior, both to the times and the people who inhabited them, and the genre itself. A modern man would doubtless be uncomfortable transported back into harder times, without modern amenities or sensibilities to buoy him. But his discomfort wouldn't necessarily be a sign of superiority any more than his inability to get alone in a foreign country would place him above the natives. The past isn't inexorably worse or better or anything but different.
Bone Tomahawk understands this, and approaches its unusual story without condescending to nor apologizing for the time in which it is set. In the frontier town of Bright Hope, a stranger comes into town, spotted burying something beneath a tree by the backup deputy (an old man named Chicory, who insists on describing all of his observations as being "the official opinion of the backup deputy.") The man is apprehended by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and shot in the leg.
The town doctor is a drunk (of course) so instead Mrs. O'Dwyer is called into the jail to nurse the man. She spends most of her time alternately scolding her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) for breaking his leg, and taking vigorous advantage of the fact that his broken leg means he can't go on a cattle drive, and so has to stay home for once.
Whether the townsfolk approve of Mrs. O'Dwyer doing doctoring or not does not become any sort of story point - there's a need, she can fill it, and in this story the men are pragmatic. The main male characters are Sheriff Hunt; Arthur O'Dwyer; the doddering, slightly silly old Chicory; and the outwardly civilized Mr. Brooder (Matthew Fox) who boasts of having killed more Indians than all of the rest of the men put together.
They're all called into action when Mrs. O'Dwyer, the stranger who'd been shot, and a deputy all disappear from the jail overnight. The only clue is an arrowhead with an animal's tooth for a head. It's the callsign of the troglodytes, cannibal cave dwellers from a forbidden valley a five-day ride away. The stranger had disturbed one of their burial grounds, and they hunted him to Bright Hope, taking from it what they wanted.
For most of the film, our four heroes set out on the trail of the troglodytes, aiming to recover the woman and deputy. As one would expect from this set up, the men conflict with one another on the road. Sheriff Hunt barks orders even when he's not really in charge. Brooder's cold-bloodedness gets on Chicory's nerves, and O'Dwyer has no business being on a horse with his broken leg, but there's no way to turn him back.
Bone Tomahawk paints each character in fine detail, and does so employing a language that sounds almost otherworldly, with a double sense of formality and implied violence behind every line. These are rough, rough men who try to speak as finely as their education and temperaments will allow. There's very little swearing, and when O'Dwyer lets out a few epithets while in pain, he immediately apologizes to the Almighty for his transgression.
What makes all of it work, and not seem overly-mannered or false, is the integrity of the performances behind the dialogue, and first-time feature-film director and screenwriter S. Craig Zahler has managed to round up an absolutely perfect cast for his four male leads. Kurt Russell embodies unquestionable authority, but has a way of projecting deep sympathy even when his face is completely covered in a beard and mustache. Richard Jenkins plays Chicory like a character actor in an old John Ford oater. Matthew Fox, in a performance the surprised me, is a quietly menacing though oddly dapper Indian killer appropriately named John Brooder who has done horrible things, which he may or may not believe a tragic past justifies. He won't say one way or the other. He's a man who guns other men down in cold blood, but tears up at the idea of putting down his horse when it breaks a leg. Patrick Wilson as the dogged Arthur O'Dwyer begins as a kind of pathetic figure, and takes on a certain majesty even as his leg gets worse and worse, slowing the other men down in their terrible pursuit.
And what they pursue is indeed terrible. While much of the long (but not overlong) 123-minute running time of Bone Tomahawk could be scenes from any good Western, what the men find when they breach the valley of the troglodytes is as terrible as anything in any horror movie - maybe more terrible, because of the realistic Western foundation. I won't reveal anything of the climax to this story, but it is incredibly graphic, brutal, and gory.
Though it doesn't detract much from the film as a whole, it is a bit of a shame the object of this long journey, Mrs. O'Dwyer, isn't played by an actress who fits her role more capably. Lili Simmons is fetching, but she recites her lines like she has no idea what they mean and seems to be able to play sultry, or irritated, and nothing in-between. Bone Tomahawk was made on a very slim budget, and was very clearly (at least to this native) shot in Southern California. Those fields and valleys don't look particularly Western, though they do look majestic enough.
But these are minor problems in the face of what is really a laudable achievement, and a hell of a movie. Bone Tomahawk, though grisly and violent, is content to let its Western elements be real Western elements. The characters and actions and dialogue feel like an authentic Western. It's not a revisionist Western or an ironic Western or a post-Modern Western - the horror elements are neither tacked on, nor a left-field development, but organic to the setting. It's a Western, and a good one, though definitely not for the faint of heart.
The DVD I reviewed contained a couple of decent extras - one was a 10-minute making of which was basically EPK talking-head stuff, though decent enough as these featurettes go. More interesting is a 34-minute panel discussion at the film's showing at the Austin Texas Fantastic Fest, which includes the director, the producers, and stars Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins. It has the dodgy sound that seems to universally plague these filmed panels, but offers insight into just how low-budget and tenuous the production of the film was, and how it had to be a real passion project for everyone involved.