Cowboys-and-Indians antics have rarely been more antic than they are in “Bone Tomahawk,” a gleefully grisly genre gazpacho that matches a rousing sense of Old West derring-do to a comic sensibility as dark as chewing tobacco — and at least as much of an acquired taste. But for those with a head for loopily discursive humor (not to mention a stomach for some inspired grotesquerie), S. Craig Zahler’s debut feature will come as a most violent delight. Winking explicitly to “The Searchers” with its ostensibly classical tale of four mismatched frontiersmen out to rescue abducted townsfolk from the clutches of a savage (and emphatically fictitious) native tribe, “Bone Tomahawk” may seem over-indulgent at 132 minutes, yet it’s the wayward digressions of Zahler’s script — navigated with palpable enjoyment by an expert, Kurt Russell-led ensemble — that are most treasurable in a film that commits wholeheartedly to its own curiosity value.
Unspooling as the closer of this year’s Fantastic Fest, before headlining the Cult strand of the London Film Festival later this month, “Bone Tomahawk” is already being positioned by sprocket-opera programmers as a cult item in the making. That may be an impossible status to target or anticipate, but Zahler’s film is at once broadly and narrowly appealing enough to gain tickled admirers via word of mouth. The first acquisition for the rebranded RLJ Entertainment, it is assured a long ancillary life even if it rides into a relatively swift theatrical sunset.
That should work fine for a film with little interest in instant gratification. Saving its most eye-popping action for its final reel — when it flips register, with wicked nonchalance, from oater to splatter — the pic is mostly content to lope rather than gallop across its two hours and change. Bullets are fired and bones are broken, but Zahler counts on his flavorful, circuitous dialogue to build drawling chemistry between its four male leads. It’s a shaggy approach, indicative of the novelist-turned-helmer’s literary streak, that pays off: Even at the film’s most extravagantly silly or gruesome, there’s a springy human connection between its modified stock characters that gives it an edge over many comparably irreverent B-movie pastiches.
Still, there’s no bait-and-switch at play here. In the opening beats of an extended pre-credits sequence, a casual throat slitting — followed in short order by a rock to the skull — sets the tone for the squelchy gore that will eventually follow. Bickering outlaws Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette) stumble across the burial ground of an unnamed indigenous tribe, whose living members make their displeasure over the intrusion immediately known. Only Purvis, grievously wounded, escapes with his life; 11 days later, he’s arrested and imprisoned in the optimistically christened few-horse town of Bright Hope, under the auspices of weary-wise sheriff Hunt (Russell).
Alas, Purvis brings more than just gurning criminal hostility to the sleepy community, as it turns out that his bloodthirsty attackers aren’t willing to let things lie. Overnight, he’s kidnapped, along with jail guard Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) and Samantha (Lili Simmons), the doctor charged with tending the prisoner’s wounds. The search is on, then, for a brutal horde of cavedwellers that, as a local Native American instructs Hunt, “men like you would not distinguish from Indians.” (While Zahler delights elsewhere in politically incorrect humor, the representational disclaimer here could not be louder or clearer.) Setting off in search of the tribe’s remote lair, Hunt is joined by a ragtag trio of compadres: his bumbling deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), dashingly mustachioed gunslinger Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Samantha’s cowpoke husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), whose sturdy machismo is somewhat critically undercut by a broken leg.
It’s this beleaguered quartet’s setback-strewn progress that forms the body of the film, as they work toward a kind of reluctant brotherhood amid much sniping, snarking and arbitrary rumination. The journey would certainly feel longer without the spry interplay between the actors: All four are in terrific form here, savoring Zahler’s salty verbal peculiarities as they riff loosely on such genre stereotypes as the jaded lawman, the wholemeal hero and the village idiot. Russell, so underused of late, makes a stern claim on Western terrain he’s soon to revisit in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”; Wilson and Fox, the latter playing pleasingly against type, wittily inhabit reverse sides of the same alpha coin. It’s Jenkins, meanwhile, whose winningly woebegone mien and sneakily perfect timing prove the value of the off-topic writing: One might think a lengthy disquisition on flea circuses would be prime cutting-room fodder in a tense revenge thriller, but Jenkins’ delivery proves otherwise.
Not every viewer who enjoys this kind of horseplay, so to speak, will be equally receptive to the pic’s gut-twisting left turn into hard horror territory once the mysterious so-called “troglodytes” finally show their inventively adorned faces. Without spoiling any lurid surprises, however, the viewers’ disorientation should mirror that of the characters as the narrative descends into another realm entirely.
It’s in the genre twist that “Bone Tomahawk’s” lovingly bronzed craft contributions really prove their mettle, with Benji Bakshi’s sunbaked widescreen lensing taking on a seamier sense of claustrophobia precisely when required. There’s a subtle degree of revue-style exaggeration to the pic’s timber-textured period production design and natty costumes, appropriately planting proceedings just shy of reality — though excellent sound design could hardly be more crunchily immediate. A leanly atmospheric score, co-composed by the helmer, peaks with a hilarious parody of a regional folk dirge that shows up — like much else in the film — the shortcomings of Seth MacFarlane’s more innocuous, but fatally strained, Western satire “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” Among the other virtues of his debut, Zahler has surely found the one-million-and-first.