Bone Tomahawk ✮✮✮1/2
Last Valley on the Left
by Glenn Lovell
The hills still have eyes and right now they’re fixed on Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his posse as they track a tribe of inbred cannibals that has abducted three people, including one of their number’s wife. The rescue party will, after much travail, eventually reach its destination, but they, and maybe even the viewer, will wish they hadn’t.
A mashup of revisionist Western and early Wes Craven splatter-fest, S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” (limited release and VOD) proves one of the year’s most suspenseful offerings, a tightly constructed, strongly acted trek into enemy territory that at each bend in the trail becomes increasingly tough to stomach … or shake off.
Appropriately, writer-director Zahler (“Asylum Blackout”) opens with a cowpoke awakening to the sound of his own throat being slit. This harkens back to the end of Arthur Penn’s “The Missouri Breaks,” when Jack Nicholson, astride Brando, whispers, “You know what woke you up? You just had your throat cut.”
That’s one way to grab the viewer’s attention. But it’s also a trap. Where do you go from here? Zahler has, right out of the chute, set the bar really high, or low, according to your tolerance for such things. Here, Zahler wisely steps back for a little exposition; he introduces us to the seriously eccentric folk of Bright Hope, including the laconic Hunt, a gunslinger-dandy named Brooder (Matthew Fox), Hunt’s slow-but-resourceful “backup deputy” Chicory (a never better Richard Jenkins), and Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons). O’Dwyer, nursing a busted leg, has a severe case of cabin fever.
The killers turn out to be a couple of scurvy prairie dogs, played to the hilt by David Arquette and Sid Haig, who scratches his balls with the barrel of his gun. The pair desecrate a spooky-looking burial ground, and this gets things rolling as a band of “Troglodyte” Indians takes revenge, carting off poor Mrs. O’Dwyer, a deputy and the appropriately named Purvis (Arquette) to their cave dwellings in the Valley of the Starving Man.
Hunt, Chicory, Brooder and the hobbled O’Dwyer saddle up as best they can and “Bone Tomahawk,” exceptionally well photographed (often in striking long shot), turns into a harrowing rescue mission a la “The Searchers” and Ron Howard’s unheralded “The Missing.” The ride is doubly difficult with the hobbled O’Dwyer along. Making matters worse is Brooder, a smug, Indian-hating “gentleman” who holds Hunt and the others in contempt. He’s fast on the trigger and kills with impunity.
“Bone Tomahawk” won’t be for all tastes thanks mainly to its climactic violence, which had this hardcore horror buff shielding his eyes. The protracted torture scenes are as tough to watch as anything in Craven’s original “Last House on the Left.” Then, too, many will give this one a miss because it’s a Western, a genre that continues to be a tough — make that impossible — sell.
Those who do elect to join in the hunt will be rewarded handsomely, as much for the spectacular, sepia-tone vistas as the interplay between Russell and Jenkins, which brings to mind the good-natured bickering of Wayne and Walter Brennan in “Rio Bravo.” Indeed, Russell turns in what may very well be a career-topping performance. Jenkins’ closing monologue about a traveling flea circus is so good it almost makes up for Simmons’ Mrs. O’Dwyer, who looks death in the eye with all the haughty nonchalance of a Park Avenue socialite who has been inconvenienced by a salesgirl. Suffice to say Simmons seems to be acting in another movie, one in which the stakes aren’t quite so high.
BONE TOMAHAWK ✮✮✮1/ Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons. Written, directed by S. Craig Zahler. 132 min. Unrated (would be a hard R for graphic torture scenes)