The recipe for writer / director S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk” is pretty simple. It’s two cups of “The Searchers,” a half cup of Jack Ketchum, two teaspoons “Rio Bravo.”
It concerns the rescue of local doctor, Samantha (Lili Simmons), who is abducted by a tribe of cannibal Indians that were hunting a thief holed up in the local jail. A search party is formed, consisting of her injured husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), his disheveled deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and a local surgeon / dandy / war hero, Brooder (Matthew Fox). The film meanders along, reminiscent of the aformentioned John Wayne pictures, where the pacing is meant to build the world and give us a rooting interest in the characters before things get rough. In this it succeeds admirably, but especially as it concerns the supporting cast.
The two biggest surprises are Jenkins and Fox. Jenkins gives a really touching, believably lived-in performance as Chicory, the Deputy who seems to be coming out of the long stupor of an extended drunk following the loss of his wife. The way the sheriff coddles him and reminds him to feed himself, even going so far as to lecture him on how to eat, has the gentle air of a man taking care of an elderly, infirm relative. Jenkins’ performance is a subtle reference to the classic “drunk rising to the occasion” trope that was played by so gloriously by Dean Martin in “Rio Bravo.” He gives a whisper-soft performance and he shares a lot of insignificant observations meant to illustrate the inner feelings of a man remembering what it’s like to be in the company of others again. Rediscovering the beauty of the world … and the ugliness of it. Wherever he was, he wasn’t doing much talking, and his journey is a return to the land of the living.
And Fox as Brooder is a whole new Fox. Brooder brags about his record killing Indians in a war, and ribs Arthur about his wife well past the point of good taste. Brooder loses a finger, and you’d think he had been cleaved in half. When his traveling companions tell him he’ll be okay without that finger, he responds with “No, I won’t. I’m far too vain to live as a cripple.” It’s the sort of deadpan sarcastic that we’ve never seen Fox play before, because he’s always been cast as the earnest hero. “Bone Tomahawk” is also unexpectedly funny, thanks largely to Fox as Brooder. However, without Jenkins to play off of, the biggest laugh Fox gets might not have worked quite so well. Fox spies a snake hanging from a tree branch. Jenkins, unusually invested, asks: “what kind?” We hear a gunshot and Fox replies “deceased.”
“Bone Tomahawk” does indeed get vicious, but it also asks big questions.
At one point, Chicory wonders aloud how a flea circus operates, and the conversation reveals two options. First, have fleas have miraculously learned how to operate tiny circus rides? Or are they just a bunch of vermin attached to a ride that will continue to operate with or without them attached? It’s an allegory for both their specific predicament and the inhabitants of the Old West. Is there a chance for a miracle rescue? Or is this rescue party destined to become a few more bodies on an uncaring landscape? Will the Old West live up to lofty ideals and be cast into myth? Or will everyone there just die covered in mud, blood, and dirt?
Samantha gives Chicory the hopeful answer about the flea circus because it’s clear he needs to hear it to affirm his journey. I liked the grace in that moment, it’s a beautiful gesture by a character who has seen enough to know better than to hope for miracles. It’s a tiny gesture in a movie filled to bursting with them.