(dir. S. Craig Zahler)
When a cowboy’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy are taken under mysterious circumstances, a posse braves the wild west to reclaim them, but discover savagery unlike anything they’ve ever encountered before.
The horror-western or Weird West, has remained relatively untapped sub-genre in film and ever since the Western film has faded from the forefront of American movie culture, it has become increasingly unlikely to see a resurgence of those films. The Western has become an increasingly problematic genre in the 21st century. Regardless of the fact that these films are set in the past, there is a frontier mentality of manifest destiny, a cultural ignorance and insensitivity, an overt racism and sexism displayed in many of the films that fall into this genre, which make it nearly impossible jive with modern preoccupations and sensitivities, regardless of those prior films’ qualities. The seemingly problematic nature of the Western makes Zahler’s film all the more impressive. He manages to understand the film language of Western and our modern cultural language to create a Western that feels remarkably modern while fulfilling the best attributes of the classic genre. Zahler finds the romance in the West without romanticizing the Western. Oh, and let’s not forget—he makes it a startlingly frightening and unexpectedly emotional experience.
Featuring an impressive cast made up of Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Lili Simmons, Bone Tomahawk has no problem finding an authentic groove. Low-budget, indie film this may be, but Bone Tomahawk is the most impressive looking and sounding Western this side of a Tarantino film. The film’s aesthetic is entrenched in the past but its characters don’t suffer from the clichés of the genre. They are familiar archetypes sure, but Zahler fleshes out each character giving them compelling motivation and making us care about each character. And then the blood starts flowing we’re left gripping our knees as these characters we’ve come to care about must survive against cave dwelling cannibals. By the time we reach the third act, the male characters’ macho posturing and comfort in their familiar surroundings is stripped away and we’re left with identifiably human characters who may cling to notions of manifest destiny but have no idea what truly lies out there in the great hills and valleys of America.
In the film’s antagonists, Zahler finds a way around furthering the racism against Native American tribes, by giving us a truly unsettling tribe of a different sort, one with a culture incomparable to that of the Indians the Westerns of yesteryear referred to as “savages.” Zahler makes his characters aware of these differences, so that even the famed Indian-killer comes to realize that the true threat is something far more sinister than anything he’s ever encountered. This isn’t a film about reparations or apologies, but a film that seeks to expose the West for what it really was: a place of brutality, ignorance, and a glimmer of hope for the future.