The town in S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) is Bright Hope and it’s somewhere out West, in the 1890s. But it seems not so very far from Fargo, in the 1970s, the setting of Noah Hawley’s TV series—spun off cleverly and chillingly from the Coen brothers’ famous 1990s film. It, too, featured Patrick Wilson and Zahn McClarnon and saw a small town suddenly struck by horrific crimes.
The crimes that nightmare-ride into Bright Hope, though, come with the howling wind of horror at their backs. It all begins in mid-throat slit, with thief Buddy (Sid Haig) roughly and raggedly dispatching another victim out in the brush before searching his books for money. (Learnedness vies with dastardliness, as when Buddy’s no-good associate scolds him for not cutting deeply enough into their first victim: “There are sixteen veins in the neck.”) But the two miscreants hear horses, make for the hills and happen upon a strange site, all skulls and rocks carefully arranged. Buddy’s pal is shot through the throat with an arrowhead and Buddy runs for his life, ending up days later in Bright Hope.
From there, the film takes its sweet ol’ time, rocking back and forth like the doors to the saloon, ‘The Learned Goat’, where we observe the process of paying a man to play piano—it’s three cents for one song but a dime for three, and the starting fee’s a drink. Backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) seems equal parts observant (he spots Buddy burying a carpet bag on the edge of town) and befuddled: “This tastes like corn.” “It’s corn chowder.” “Oh. Then things are linin’ up.”
But they’re not, really. The town is not as sure-footed as it seems. After laying Buddy low, Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) calls in the medically-trained Samantha (Lili Simmons) to tend to him because the town doctor is well into his cups. All the while, the meek-mannered mayor seems overshadowed in action and intellect by his wife.
Zahler’s debut (shot in just 21 days on a meagre budget) comes after a decade of churning out screenplays—25 of his 40 were optioned by Hollywood, but only one’s been made so far. In this odyssey, he’s tilted the Western into something more Darwinian, even (HG) Wellsian: rough-and-tumble men on the dry-and-dusty edge of civilization, gathered in a two-bit town down on the plain, versus primitive, Morlock-like cave dwellers. It’s the law and order of a present establishing the future versus the stone and mud of man’s primordial, near-forgotten past.
Civilization hasn’t yet motored beyond nature’s clawing grasp. Easy comforts are decades away; the darkness of night still holds terrors just beyond the firelight. The saddle-up camaraderie of horse operas gets sharply spurred into anxiety and prickliness here, even as a sense of doom tumbleweeds along.
Bright Hope’s men may believe, as one of them says, that their best chance is their superior intelligence. But their wolfish, cannibalizing foes soon confront them with a horrible, atavistic truth—humans, too, can be little more than meat for the butchering.