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Is Bone Tomahawk the ultimate good-bad movie? First-time filmmaker S. Craig Zahler’s Western strobes like disco lighting between light and dark, sublime and ridiculous, calm and carnage. It’s an amazing film; it’s hardly ever still. Towards the end — life, death, bondage and horror in a cave of savages — you’re not sure whether to laugh, gape, tremble or shriek. Or do all four things at once.
The film’s brownish-sepia early colouring paints a frontier town where sheriff Kurt Russell, old-timer deputy Richard Jenkins and godly townsman Patrick Wilson, tended by his doctor wife as he lies up with a splinted leg, like to think they keep a still centre in the surrounding wild. A prologue has shown us that wild. Two robber-killers are attacked by howling white-painted savages. Next we know: there’s been a kidnapping in town (Wilson’s wife) and a posse is formed to give chase. Russell, Jenkins and Wilson are joined by dandy gunslinger Matthew Fox (white suit, suave epigrams).
It could be an old B-feature sent like a flaming arrow into our midst. As the sepia desaturates, the screen is practically black and white as the ill-teamed, ill-equipped quartet — after The Hateful Eight the hope-and-a-prayer four — go deeper into the desert. Bivouacking by night, they bash on by day through ambushes, attacks and abducted horses.
Arrows don’t quite kill, of course; “lethal” wounds aren’t quite lethal; and without hooves you just hoof yourself. It’s a B-movie world with B-movie logic. But when needed, there are also a B-movie’s raw instantaneity and graphic shorthand. The character drawing is swift as charcoal strokes. Sheriff Russell is crusty and unquitting, deputy Jenkins a shaggy-dog chatterbox. Dandy Fox shoots first — at anything — and leaves the question-asking to godly Wilson, still dragging that planked leg. By the last act, Bone Tomahawk has become a Beckett play in cactus country. It’s that stoical, mad, absurdist-philosophical. Someone says amid the last-reel flurry of violence (with moments so hands-on-horrific they’re surely sired by the age of Isis): “This is what makes life in frontier country so difficult.”
The end credits are in quaint B-Western lettering with a theme song Gene Autry would envy. I told you: the moods are like a rodeo ride. With this film the cowboy genre moves beyond modern and postmodern. You could call it postmillennial, post-apocalyptic, post-ironic. It’s definitely post-early-for-Christmas: plan now to order the DVD for friends.