In the American West, a reclusive clan of mud-caked, in-bred tribespeople called Troglodytes, who communicate in spectral, throaty laments engage in ghastly rituals of cannibalism that are the centerpiece of the horror in this often gripping, mostly talky film that dares to be more than it appears and is genuinely satisfying. Like an amusement park ride that spends three quarters of its time teasing riders in a long straight stretch before the rush of the first big drop, Bone Tomahawk is a triumph in storytelling that confidently holds its own as both a Western and a Horror. Between this and the equally compelling Slow West (2015), we might be finally getting a revival of the “Cowboy” movie with a fresh twist. Bone Tomahawk is a much better film than even the studio behind it seems to think and should be considered one of the best of the year.
In a small town, run by weathered, grizzled and mustachioed Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), a drifter (David Arquette) strolls into the local saloon, raising some concern after the old-timer “back-up” Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) spots him burying a stash of bloodied clothes in a hole in the outskirts. After he refuses to answer for his actions and makes a motions to escape, Hunt shoots him in the leg and jails him, calling upon Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the town’s doctor to patch him up, something that is alluded to be a sort of habit with the Sheriff. She decides to stay the night at the jail when the drifter develops a fever, but in the morning, both she, the drifter, and the youngest of the deputies have gone missing. More distressing is the found body of a stable boy, who is butchered and gutted. After some deliberations (with blink or you’ll miss them cameos by Sean Young and Michael Paré), Hunt recruits Chicory, O’Dwyer’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), whose leg is freshly mangled from a fall off a roof, and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a sharp-dressed gunslinger whose is naturally cold and methodical, to take the five-day ride to the caves where they suspect the woman and two men have been taken and where they know a horror lies in wait.
The four men are the heart of the story and each are carefully written and exceptionally well-crafted and acted. These are a rich, colorful characters that are deeply affecting. While all four actors bring great depth to each of their roles, it is Fox who is perhaps the most striking, giving truly one of his best performances in a career of high quality work. He creates a chilling character that is both very dark and surprisingly sentimental. Jenkins, too, is remarkable as the elder uneducated widower who has some of the best lines in a film simply seeping with vibrant dialogue. Without his wife, he is dedicated to Hunt, a servant to the cause, and a tireless commentator on the journey, the world, and the experience of being in it. His moment of reflection involving a flea circus at a time of great peril, and how it parallels their situation is a highlight. Russell is the most subdued, but properly so and it’s impossible not to draw a comparison to the his now iconic Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993). He retains the same authority he did there, but with an aged sensibility that gives the viewer a comfortable feeling of trust. We want to follow him. He is confident and while not a gifted intellect, is clever and resourceful even while things fall apart. Of note too is a short moment with Sid Haig, a veteran of horror, who, in the film’s opening, sets an immediate tone.
To say anything about the cannibals in the film night seem spoilerish, and I dare not reveal much more than the trailer (read our Sneak Peek) already exposes, but they are a mysterious people who are made clear not to be “Indians” by the movie’s only Native American in a pointed declaration to the Sheriff and crew early in the film (and I recognize the blunder in suggesting the Troglodytes themselves may not indeed be Native American as well). We learn little about them, but what we do is intriguing and while motivations are alluded too, there is something curious about their actions, especially their language and origin. A glimpse of a female raises even more questions.
Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler, in his debut, the Bone Tomahawk has the feel of a classic Western, especially at its core, but never the grandeur or scale, keeping it very localized and tight with only a few wider shots that reveal not so much a majesty but lingering sense of doom. Always close to the ground, Zahler is restrained in a time when over-indulgence seems compulsory. Even the score is only a few simple strings, reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s emotional work in Unforgiven (1992). Deliberately slow and evenly paced, there are no staged action pieces but authentic and jarring moments of realism that are, as realism can be, brutal to watch. Credit must be given to Zahler for taking what is nearly ninety-five percent of one genre and wholly committing to another in the last five in an ending that doesn’t merely payoff on the expectation of what the shadowy demons haunting the plot from the very start are but effectively (and gruesomely) legitimizes the fear. The sudden, graphic and even traumatizing last act is not for the light of heart and anyone going into this movie with ideas of a shootout like those in standard Western movies will surely be thrown. Horror films have somewhat desensitized us to absurd acts of human abuse, with torture and gore the mainstay in–and main conceit of–this genre. Bone Tomahawk, and the recently released Eli Roth film, The Green Inferno (2015), don’t placate to the premise, never making gore the concentration, instead making it a real dread, which is something almost all “horror” movies misunderstand. Horror isn’t filling the screen and story with unrelenting, numbing violence and carnage, it’s empathy for a character in a situation that deeply shocks and affects the viewer personally. Typical horror films populate their casts with fodder, meant to be dispensed with in gruesome ways and we the audience expect and even anticipate these deaths. Bone Tomahawk works because when there is death, it comes not because we don’t expect it, but because we care that it happens. Pay attention to the end. How many were left and how many shots were fired?