Movie Review – Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Considering the decades of supremacy which the Western genre held in American cinema, and itself being a genre which frequently employs blood, brutality and violence in its storytelling, it’s rather surprising that it hasn’t wedded itself to horror more often. There are a handful of examples, such as 1999’s Ravenous, but the relatively few others have been largely forgettable. Those who read my reviews regularly know that I’m an absolute sucker for mixing horror with period piece cinema, and that I’m fond of Westerns only made my anticipation of 2015’s Bone Tomahawk even more potent.

From first time director S. Craig Zahler, the film, despite its small budget of only $1.8 million, showcases a stellar cast, with Kurt Russell being pitch-perfect as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer, Matthew Fox as John Brooder, and Richard Jenkins stealing the show as the lovable, loyal, but not all mentally there, Chicory. He delivers memorable dialogue and helps to fill the space in otherwise quieter moments. These four characters ride out in search of abducted friends and loved ones, seeking the home of semi-mythical, cannibalistic troglodytes. Zahler was already a successful Western novelist and had sold many scripts which unfortunately went unproduced. Looking at what budget was available to him, Zahler wrote the script for Bone Tomahawk to specifically meet those financial ends, and the first draft of the script is the one he subsequently filmed.

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And what a wonderful script it is, rich with witty, expressive dialogue that the actors, with Russell and Jenkins in particular, deliver with ease. The characters are well-realized and the film is very much a character study of these four men, although one also gets a sense for the town of Bright Hope from which the men leave in the beginning of the film. In this sense the movie sways more into the less plot-driven entries of the Western genre, and horror fans not accustomed or expecting this may come away feeling the film is slow. We get a sense for the characters and find ourselves rooting for them, for even the Fancy-Dan Indian-killer, Brooder, who as we unravel his past come to understand why he is the way he is. The men are united partly by a sense of duty, but also in their love for their women, whether those women are safe, deceased, or missing. In all their faces one can see the profound impact and dependency they’ve placed upon the females in their lives. Only Brooder is unattached, but his history gives reason for why he has chosen to remain so, to avoid the fear and pain his three compatriots display. As he tells Chicory, “Smart men don’t get married.”

Nevertheless, we want to see all these men succeed, or we at least want to see them go out in a “blaze of glory” like in many Westerns, but the horror elements lead us to believe that only death and pain awaits these heroes, and perhaps their deaths will be in vain. In this way the film creates tension. There is very little music, and the only music present gives very little reason to hope their journey will be successful. As a local Native American tells them in the beginning, they have no hope of overpowering these troglodytes even with their firearms – their mission is a futile one.

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Yet Sheriff Hunt realizes early on their only chance of success lies in their wits, if they can keep them, when he tells O’Dwyer, “The only advantage we have over these cave dwellers is being smarter.” Thus the film becomes a crashing of worlds as the prehistoric troglodyte culture comes up against the periphery of American civilization, though by American standards the Western frontier was hardly civilization at all. By the turn of the century Native American populations were largely subdued beneath the boot-heel of white “progress,” and so these remote cannibals become the last victims of Manifest Destiny.

Bone Tomahawk recreates its era well, in language, sentiment, and location. The cinematography serves the story and evokes the Western expanse while its story takes nods from Western genre classics, most notably John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Race relations, though focused upon, are nonetheless not softened for modern viewers, giving a further air of authenticity. When the film delves into horror, and the titular weapon does its work, it does so realistically and unflinchingly. I can only hope more filmmakers will take inspiration and infuse the macabre into other historical periods.

Grade: B+

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