I blame David Arquette.
A film’s cast is only as strong as the script they’re bringing to life, but it’s difficult not to get excited when a strong ensemble comes together for an interesting project. The last time a cast announcement got me truly jazzed was the 2001 action/comedy 3000 Miles to Graceland – Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner in the same movie? Plus Kevin Pollak and Christian Slater? It turned out though that a fantastic cast is far from a guarantee of quality as the movie ended up being a tone-deaf disappointment. I promised myself I’d never again get preemptively excited for a film based on its casting.
But then Bone Tomahawk came along. The cast shuffled a bit in the early days, but the final roster includes Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, and Matthew Fox in a dark western about an attempt to rescue innocents from a tribe of cannibals in the Old West. Yes please. It had me in its dirty little palm almost instantly, and now three years after the initial announcement the film is finally hitting theaters.
And it is a disappointing mess. The connective tissue here between the two films – besides Russell (who’s the singular highlight) and my misguided enthusiasm – is the supporting presence of Arquette in small roles in both movies. It’s probably unfair to blame him as he also turned up in the equally brilliantly-cast Ravenous, and that film is a goddamn masterpiece, but if not Arquette then who?
Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s script sets up a simple but exciting premise as a tribe of Native American troglodytes – long since cast out for the habit of “raping and eating their own mothers” – abduct a woman and two men from a small town and head into the hills. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) organizes a rescue party including his backup deputy, Chicory (Jenkins), a smooth-talking killer named Brooder (Fox), and the woman’s husband, O’Dwyer (Wilson). They head out across the frontier, but not all of them will return.
The promise of a dark tale aiming in some ways to follow in the giant footsteps of The Searchers is enticing, but Zahler makes the first of many missteps early on with a series of scenes that establish the film’s ongoing lack of urgency. Character introductions come together sloppily with oddly placed edits and pacing that has zero interest in anything resembling forward motion. One sequence sees O’Dwyer reading a letter aloud to himself in bed, one he wrote to his wife that has no bearing on anything, and it goes on for forty-seven minutes. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but it goes on forever.
Things don’t fare much better once the action-focused third act finally kicks in as the fight choreography offers generic beats with poor blocking and a clear lack of energy. Our heroes are repeatedly surprised by the appearance of the enemy who seem to jump into the scene from just outside the frame. The scenes are saved in part by some gory kills – one in particular is spectacularly bloody and cruel – but they come far too late to make up for everything else.
Surprisingly, the “everything else” in question includes all but one member of the cast. Lili Simmons is perhaps the most ill-suited here as O’Dwyer’s wife – she never feels the least bit a part of this world and her lack of concern while in captivity make it seem as if she’s just hanging out at a low-rent spa. Wilson fares only slightly better acting as if he literally just parked his car and walked onto set. It doesn’t help that his character has an odd religious affectation seemingly designed to highlight the white man’s Christian over the savagery of the Native Americans. Not even Jenkins displays much of his usually reliable skill and personality as he instead takes an exaggerated stab at creating this film’s version of Rio Bravo’s Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Fox meanwhile seems content auditioning for the role of Calvin Candie in an off-Broadway production of Django Unchained. (I don’t think he’ll be getting a callback.)
Russell is the exception and delivers an intense, gritty performance that feels utterly as if he belongs in this desolate land and period. He’s the only one really trying here and shows genuine emotion in his displays of loss, anger, and defeat. The bare emotions present in the film stem from his weary and weathered face alone, and if even a handful of the other elements worked the film would have succeeded on the strength of Russell’s talents.
This is Zahler’s directorial debut, but he’s shown writing skill previously in the little-seen, highly effective thriller Asylum Blackout. It’s possible this one just got away from him, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are unfilmed pages or deleted scenes littering a floor somewhere. The characters and story never really come together beyond their very basic setup, narrative jumps occur with no explanation as to how characters moved from point A to point F, unnecessary scenes play on for far too long, and we care not at all about anyone but the sheriff.
Bone Tomahawk is a major disappointment. Damn you David Arquette, damn you.
The Upside: Kurt Russell gives a finely grizzled Western performance; surprisingly and effectively gory
The Downside: Terrible pacing; in desperate need of edits, re-shoots and re-casting; one bad performance and several inconsistent ones; fairly dumb
Read more of our Fantastic Fest 2015 coverage here.