With the success of The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, it was good to see Bone Tomahawk finally make its way onto UK screens, even if I had to go to my local independent cinema to see it. It was described to me as a weird Western, although I’d disagree with that designation. Weird Westerns generally involve an air of the supernatural, or the presence of monsters like zombies. Bone Tomahawk has neither of these.
What is DOES have is cave-dwelling troglodytes with a taste for human flesh and an apparent disregard for clothing, language and fair play. They attack the eerily quiet town of Bright Hope, stealing horses and kidnapping the deputy, the doctor’s assistant Sam (Lili Simmons) and a ne’er-do-well drifter (David Arquette). Sam’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) sets off to recover them, with the help of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), the back up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and John Brooder (Matthew Fox).
That would all be absolutely fine if Arthur didn’t have a broken leg and their horses weren’t stolen. The not-so-merry foursome are forced to follow the troglodytes’ trail on foot. Uncanny sounds penetrate the night, and eventually they find the dangerous valley that the troglodytes call home. Will they rescue Sam and the deputy, or will they get there after dinner is served?
Bone Tomahawk is essentially a quest narrative
Parts of the quest suffer from pacing problems and could have done with editing. That said, Chicory’s forgetful banter and Hunt’s no-nonsense style of speech keeps the film from swerving into boredom. Fox is a revelation as Brooder, and I had no idea he was capable of conveying emotion. Russell is, as ever, well-suited to the Western. Wilson always puts in a watchable turn; here he proves himself capable of playing a genuine heroic protagonist when he’s given enough to do. Demonstrating common sense as well as desperation, Wilson’s Arthur is a character you can actually root for.
But what of the villains of the piece, the inbred cannibals in the cave? They’re as anonymous as such characters ever are. They were bone masks, or have extra bones embedded in their faces. In a way, they look more like they belong in Mad Max: Fury Road. They’re relentless and devoid of human emotion, but they’re distanced from traditional Native groupings. True, Brooder hates Native Americans, but in the case of the troglodytes, even the sole Native in Bright Hope is quick to draw a line between his own people and those who live in the caves. The troglodytes are treated much as any other movie monster would be.
Still, I promised you horror, didn’t I?
The horror truly kicks in when the hapless party finally encounter the troglodytes. Just as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant refuses to shy away from graphic violence, S. Craig Zahler keeps the camera trained on the severed hands, fingers, and other body parts that litter the mise en scène. Someone told me that the goriest scene I’d ever see on film was in Bone Tomahawk. I’ve seen a lot worse, but I can understand why one scene in particular would make less hardened viewers more than a little queasy.
There are other similarities between The Revenant and Bone Tomahawk. There are the fraught relations between First Nation people and the white frontiersfolk. A quest narrative lies at the heart of both films. They share an intention to depict frontier life as the harsh, inhospitable attempt to eke out an existence that it likely was. However, while Iñárritu ruins The Revenant with his style over substance, Zahler’s more measured framing and deeper characterisation makes Bone Tomahawk the more satisfying watch. It’s just a shame that it didn’t get a wider release. Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox are not minor league actors, and the superior script should have seen Bone Tomahawk trump The Revenant, were it not for the presence of one Mr DiCaprio.
Should you go and see it?
I certainly think so. Bone Tomahawk proves that the Western plays well with many other genres, and in the case of horror the two make extremely friendly bedfellows! I award Bone Tomahawk 4 out of 5!