One of the best, most unexpected developments in recent media has been the resurgence of Kurt Russell. His work in 1980s John Carpenter classics Big Trouble in Little China, Escape from New York, and The Thing helped establish Russell as a genre flick icon, a charming-but-gruff personality with a history of cult classic works backing up his instant likability. A starring role in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof threatened a comeback for Russell back in 2007, but it doesn’t feel like that potential has really been put into motion until this past year. After an oddly humorous supporting role in Furious 7, Russell has returned to the Western cinema work he began in Tombstone, in both the recent Tarantino film The Hateful Eight and in Western-horror genre mashup Bone Tomahawk, making 2015 the first time he’s ever had three feature film credits in a single year. And with a great part coming up in the next Guardians of the Galaxy entry, it feels like he’s just getting started.
In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays a mustachioed, old-timey sheriff of a small, Old West town humorously named Bright Hope. When a couple of Bright Hope’s own are abducted by a rogue tribe of “inbred” Native American “troglodytes”, Russell’s hardened sheriff embarks on a rescue mission with his elderly deputy, a hothead husband bent on retrieving his missing wife, and a wildcard cad. As the cad exposes himself as a self-aggrandizing blowhard, the husband increasingly becomes crippled & enraged, and the deputy continues his descent into the mutterings of a doddering old fool, the sheriff remains as the sole member of the rescue party seemingly well-equipped for the journey. No one can be truly prepared for what lurks at the end of this particular rainbow, though: a ruthlessly sadistic tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals.
I’ll be upfront as I can about this: I’m not typically a huge of fan of the Western as a genre. Its hyper-masculine, protect-the-wives-and-horses-from-the-savage-bandits mentality & spacial pacing aren’t my usual go-to idea of entertainment. Worse yet, Bone Tomahawk delves into some grotesque Eli Roth/Cannibal Holocaust bodily horror that I have a difficult time getting behind. The latter half of the movie in particular is jam-packed with field surgery, scalping, decapitation, internal burning, and all sorts of other unpleasant gore I would typically avoid. For all of its brutality & no-nonsense masculinity, however, Bone Tomahawk does know how to subvert these genre hallmarks enough to leave behind a generally pleasing picture. The man-vs.-nature vulnerability of a broken leg or a lost horse is still essential to the plot’s macho problem-solving, but it’s undercut by nuances in the dialogue, like when a woman comments on the doomed-to-fail rescue mission, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the elements or the Indians, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” Speaking of “the Indians”, the film’s othering depictions of the antagonistic tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes’ demonic screams & skull armor is balanced by representation of other Native Americans who are much, much less barbarous & in exchanges like when a cowboy calls a native “a godless savage”, then immediately scratches his genitals with the barrel of a pistol.
Bone Tomahawk strikes a satisfying balance between living out a (possibly outdated) genre (or two)’s worst trappings & subverting them for previously unexplored freshness. Part of what makes it work as a whole is the deliciously over-written dialogue, like when David Arquette’s ruffian thief complains to the sheriff, “You’ve been squirting lemon juice in my eye since you walked in here,” but mostly it’s just nice to see Kurt Russell back in the saddle participating in weird, affecting genre work. I tend to go for a more cartoonish, morbidly humorous approach to gore than what’s presented here & I don’t see anything accomplished in this film that I didn’t enjoy far more in 1999’s criminally-overlooked Ravenous, but I also recognize that there are fans of the Western & of blunt, brutal horror that will get a kick out of what’s presented here. It’s a well-constructed, highly-disturbing genre pic with a solid lead hero, the exact kind of thing I’m glad to see Russell return to at this point in his career.