A flexible film style, the western has continually reinvented itself for new generations. A setting as much as a genre, this allows other genres to be overlaid on it such as the supernatural, as demonstrated by The Last Rites of Ransom Pride or the forthcoming television series Wynonna Earp, or horror, as in Dead Birds and as the directorial debut of novelist S Craig Zahler is being promoted. One constant, however, is that there is little honour among thieves.
Two bandits, Buddy (The Lords of Salem’s Sid Haig) and Purvis (Scream’s David Arquette) attack travellers in their sleep, killing them and stealing their belongings. Driven from the scene of their latest crime by the sound of approaching horses they take shelter in the foothills, stumbling across a clearing with a circle of stones and skulls in a ritual arrangement; paying no heed, they press forward and are ambushed by unseen assailants.
Survivor Purvis, using the name of his dead associate, stumbles into the township of Bright Hope eleven days later, his suspicious behaviour drawing the attention of backup deputy Chicory (The Cabin in the Woods’ Richard Jenkins) who summons Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Sky High’s Kurt Russell, no stranger to westerns having been one of the few survivors of Tombstone).
The uncooperative “Buddy” is shot and taken to the cells where town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Banshee’s Lili Simmons) attends to him. Effectively housebound with an injured leg, her husband Arthur (Space Station ‘76’s Patrick Wilson), wakes the next morning to find she has not returned, but before he can ascertain her whereabouts Sheriff Hunt arrives with the bad news.
There was an incident during the night, a stable boy slain and mutilated, five horses taken, the prisoner, Mrs O’Dwyer and Deputy Nick (X-Men: Days of Future Past’s Evan Jonigkeit) missing. The only clue is an arrow embedded in a wall which “the Professor” (Fargo’s Zahn McClarnon) says indicates the attackers were “a spoiled bloodline” cave-dwelling cannibal tribe from “the Valley of the Hungry Men,” five days ride distant.
A film composed of dry browns and dirty greys and blood red, gently underlit through the long nights by sparse lamplight or campfire under the stars, the days blown out by the harsh sun, at over two hours this is a as much an endurance test for the audience as the four men who ride out, Hunt, Chicory, O’Dwyer and arrogant gunslinger John Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox).
A remorseless slow burn across wilderness, Zahler’s direction is confident, his script focused on the uneasy camaraderie turning to growing tension and animosity among the mismatched travellers, straying far into dangerous territory and an uncertain destiny, but there is also humour in the supporting roles. With brief are appearances from a variety of stars of eighties cinema, Back to the Future’s James Tolkan, The Lost Boys’ Jamison Newlander, Streets of Fire’s Michael Paré and Blade Runner’s Sean Young, viewers will have to be sharp to spot them.
Inevitably there is violence, the frequent gunplay the least of it, the atmosphere of encroaching dread suddenly unleashed in moments of shocking brutality, so much that it might have been preferable that the journey had come to a different destination. While perhaps not as much a horror as the marketing would suggest, there is undeniably still life – and death – in the western.