“We went through the champagne a long time ago. This is serious stuff. The days of champagne are long gone.” – Sam Shepard, True West
The Western may be American film’s most enduring genre. Frequently, it is criticized by modern audiences as too slow and by studios as not profitable. And yet, it plods along leaving prints across the cinematic landscape. It has influenced everything from Akira Kurosowa’s Samurai movies to John Carpenter’s brand of sci-fi/horror. Too infrequent is the attempt to put the Western front and center and allow multiple generic strands to cross-pollinate and revitalize, but when it does happen the results are nothing short of magical, like a sunset over Monument Valley. Here’s hoping the release of the Stephen King fueled classic, The Dark Tower, gets it right.
The Western/Horror hybrid has been executed many times, but often uses the West as a location or for aesthetic cues (i.e. Tremors or The Devil’s Rejects) rather than tapping into the notion of a frontier mythology. S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is a hands-on a-dusty-bible Western, bare-knuckled and brutal, that takes us across the vistas and plains, and then drops you into a nightmare. The Savages are anything but noble, the heroes are often in true peril, and the violence is so visceral that despite the twangs and the cowboy hats, you know you’re in a horror movie. It’s a terrifying yarn that leaves you paralyzed by the campfire.
The opening image (I won’t give it away) leaves you gasping and dog whistles to horror aficionados that this isn’t just a Western as the appearance of Sid Haig (Buddy) and David Arquette (playing it surprisingly somber as Purvis) are certainly faces you might have spotted on a Horror Con floor. The result of the dust-up drops us into our frontier town, “Bright Hope,” a name so chipper that it clobbers you with irony. It’s not the first pummeling you will endure.
Sheriff Franklin Hunt (played by Kurt Russell with a simmering ferocity) maintains order. Aided by his trusty back-up deputy, Chicory, in a downright mesmerizing performance by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins seems to be not just in another time, but another dimension. The narrative kicks off in a very loose (perhaps severed) vein as John Ford’s canonical Western, The Searchers. Unknown Savages abduct our heroine, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), and a party must form to retrieve her. Though she is no damsel in distress, we’re not dealing with run-of-the-mill depictions of hostile Hollywood Native Americans. These are Troglodytes, and their appearance offers the all too rare vision of a whole new kind of monster.
Led by the Sheriff and his back-up deputy, and rounded out by a gimpy Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and an all-too-confident John Brooder (Matthew Fox), the band cobbles together and we gallop off into the true Western. Here, Zahler allows the landscape to tell the story, offering wide vistas and a gorgeous, treacherous landscape. Our eye can wander across the terrain in a languid fashion. We are given the breathing room to take in character moments that are about survival: stopping for water, deciding where and when to sleep. We actually spend time with these men and begin to care about them. Don’t confuse this with a lack of tension as our band knows that they are not alone.
One night around the campfire, after Brooder hastily demonstrates his quick draw by leaving two mysterious men dead, our crew is left with a new foreboding. In the dead of night, their horses are stolen and they must now make the rescue mission for Mrs. O’Dwyer on foot. This is where the film bucks genre. “The stolen horse” tramples the horror convention of “the car breaking down.”
Arthur O’Dwyer’s foot is getting worse and the trip appears all too perilous. But O’Dwyer wills himself over the fractured dirt, embodying the Western itself: he simply won’t up and die. The band decides to press on casting stones along the way for O’Dwyer to follow.
The third act fully hurdles from open plains to a horror of confinement and the camera echoes (and auditory echoes play a terrifying role in the film) this. We move from static wide shots and intimate close-ups, to something more jittery. We no longer just watch our characters interacting, but everything is framed to create a sense that something lurks just beyond. We watch our characters being watched.
Without giving away the third act, know this: you will be assaulted by the imagery. There are no merciful cutaways. There’s no quarter. The cruelty of the camera mirrors that of the landscape in the Western itself, or of the Creature in the Horror film. Zahler wisely sutures these genres not as a matter of story convenience, but because he recognizes that brutality is the connective tissue.
Bone Tomahawk can be streamed on Amazon Prime.