Sitting down for Bone Tomahawk, I was wholly unprepared for what was about to take place over the next two hours. The only intelligible way I find myself able to sum it up the experience is by describing the film as “an intense fusion of body horror and John Ford by way of The Hills Have Eyes,” yet this is only a ballpark approximation of what the genre-bending and fascinating film has to offer. Meeting the specifications of both Western and Horror halfway, Bone Tomahawk gracefully undermines each in pursuit of lending credence to the other.
Bright Hope is a small town on the Western frontier. With a population of 268, any new face that crops up in the local watering hole (The Learned Goat) brings attention. A wiry, skittish fellow, Purvis (David Arquette) can only down one drink before engaging in a briefly violent altercation with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), receiving a bullet in the leg for his efforts. Lest he die before he can be properly hanged, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is called upon to perform a late night extraction, leaving her infirm cowboy husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), home alone. When the town wakes, the jailhouse is empty. Finding an odd arrow menacingly buried in the wall, the sheriff concludes that Indians are responsible, and he informs Arthur of his wife’s disappearance. Ignoring his severely broken leg, Arthur hobbles to the Learned Goat where a town hall meeting is taking place. A local Indian expert (because he is himself an Indian), Tall Trees (Zahn McClarnon) identifies the arrow as belonging to a group of inbred, cave-dwelling natives called Troglodytes. A search party consisting of local philanderer/dandy John Brooder (Matthew Fox), Sheriff Hunt, Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and the bullheaded Arthur O’Dwyer ride into the unknown, determined to rescue (or avenge) their kin.
Captivating and stylish, Bone Tomahawk‘s greatest achievement is its steadfastness in never taking itself too seriously. Writer/director S. Craig Zahler intuitively recognizes that his outlandish premise needs likewise direction in order to succeed. Spot-on dialogue displays a genuine reverence for supercilious 1890s English, while reveling in the language’s idiosyncratic adherence toward civility. Despite the inhospitable circumstances, Zahler uses any opportunity to inject brevity, disregarding the usual absence of humor in both Horror and Western genres. Skirting cultural sensitivity towards unfavorable depictions of Natives, Zahler’s brilliant use of sub-human Troglodytes is a veritable “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” and employing a Native American as the voice through which the information is delivered all but sanctifies the audience’s eventual hatred towards these hellish creatures.
Bone Tomahawk wages its 132-minute battle on multiple fronts. Jenkins’ Chicory is the emotional heart of the proceedings, his constant jibber-jabber mirroring a viewer’s could-be inner monologue while providing a source of continual laughter. A sober Doc Boone (The Searchers), Jenkins’ chatter buoys attention during lulls and diffuses any unnecessary tension. Coupled with Hunt, the two lawmen become the perfect contradiction to Brooder’s unyielding racism. A welcome modern counterargument to the Western’s glorification of cowboys, Chicory and Hunt help to remove the film from the ignorance of the past. Crippling the wrathful husband poses a challenge to deeply embedded views on masculinity that have been so skewed by decades of badass characters portrayed by the likes of John Wayne, Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis. If it is easy to imagine revenge for a loved one without so much as a second thought, walking hundreds of miles on a broken leg (with one 1890s crutch) without lying down to die is unfathomable. A hidden centre to the film, masked by the other riders’ solemnity and Chicory’s perpetual good attitude, Arthur’s should-be hopelessness is a continual reminder of just how high the stakes truly are.
Boasting some brutally insane practical effects, horrifying villains and a really cute old man, Bone Tomahawk is an unlikely paragon of genre-blending-gone-right. Like Rob Zombie’s idealized version of The Searchers, S. Craig Zahler’s film has every opportunity to go wrong, yet somehow stays just so right.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.