At times graphic ‘Bone Tomahawk’ pits four men against a hostile environment and relentless foes

January 31, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 31, 2018

Author’s note: This post describes a horror movie that’s suitable for adult audiences only; consequently, sensitive or younger readers are advised to avoid this blog entry. MEM

Bone Tomahawk is an intense 2015 Western about a quartet of men who set out to rescue a man and woman who have been kidnapped by cannibals.

The movie doesn’t pull many punches: A sleeping man’s throat is slit in the movie’s opening seconds, and a number of scenes show characters cutting or tearing into others. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of splatter-fest, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.

The villains of the piece are a small indigenous group called troglodytes; they never speak and supposedly lack language of any kind. Moments into the movie, a pair of drifters stumble into their territory and desecrate a sacred space. One (David Arquette) pays a terrible price; the other, Buddy (Sid Haig), escapes but inadvertently leads a party of angry raiders to a small frontier town called Bright Hope.

After the suspicious Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) shoots the twitchy Buddy in the leg, the raiders abduct the drifter, a young deputy named Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), a nurse who was tending the wounded man.

The crisis has struck at an inopportune moment — the town of about 800 has been largely emptied, apparently by a cattle drive. Although Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), recently broke his leg, he and Hunt ride out with Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a chatty older “backup deputy,” and John Brooder (Matthew Fox), a well-traveled man with a well-earned reputation for slaughtering indigenous people.

The rest of the movie consists of a days-long journey to the troglodytes’ remote stronghold and the rescue attempt itself. The trip itself is no cakewalk: The terrain is varied and unfamiliar, offering relatively little free-flowing water. There may also be bandits afoot, as the suspicious sheriff and trigger-happy Brooder are all too aware. Worst of all, O’Dwyer’s injury threatens to foil the entire venture.

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director-composer S. Craig Zahler’s first outing as a movie writer, director or composer. (He’s since written, directed and composed a 2017 crime thriller, Brawl in Cell Block 99.) Zahler, who earned a small number of cinematography and camera operator credits from 1995 to 2005, handles everything beautifully. His script and staging give the audience plenty of time to appreciate the grim circumstances confronting the characters while throwing in some real jolts along the way. The encounters with the troglodytes are always nerve-wracking; the creatures seem to emerge from the landscape and at times appear to be impervious to the weapons of the would-be rescuers.

The movie is a work of entertainment, but Zahler develops just enough of his main characters to make them interesting and to invest viewer sympathies. The American west is indubitably a white man’s world, governed by patriarchal traditions and violence, but the best line comes from the only main female character, Samantha, who memorably snaps, “This is why frontier life is so difficult — not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.”

Hunt is the most interesting figure; at once compassionate and pragmatic, he’s reluctant to suffer fools but has a soft spot for Chicory and his verbal ramblings. But even as the movie builds a case for his heroism, it gives us cause to question his integrity: Hunt is a little too eager to wield the influence his badge affords him, and his treatment of the people the quartet encounters mid-journey will leave the audience feeling a bit queasy.

To a lesser degree, Brooder also emerges as both repellent and sympathetic. Arrogant and cocky, he seemingly reserves tenderness only for Saucy, his horse. But when Zahler gives us some insight into why he became the way he is, it becomes hard to hate Brooder wholeheartedly.

I’m not much of a fan of Westerns. But then again, Bone Tomahawk isn’t just a Western; the villainous troglodytes are so primitive and brutal as to seem like an alien species, and Zahler clearly takes a lot of cues from body horror. This picture is challenging at times to watch, but it winds up being a pleasure to have watched.

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