On paper, the idea of combining a Western with a horror story is a strangely compelling one, but the last Western/horror mash-up this writer remembers watching was JT Petty’s excellent 2008 effort The Burrowers. They’re few and far between, which makes Bone Tomahawk one of the more unique films you’ll see this year. I’m also happy to report that it’s quite an entertaining one too, and if it doesn’t always live up to its promise, it’s still got so much going in its favor – as both a Western and a horror story – that even a rather lengthy running time doesn’t keep it being a compelling and suspenseful watch.
Writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s film opens with two low-level brigands (David Arquette and the legendary Sid Haig) venturing into a forbidding valley marked by human skulls at its entrance. Arquette’s Purvis makes it out and ends up at a bar in the small town of Bright Hope, where he refuses to answer questions when Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) are summoned to interrogate him. Purvis ends up in jail with a bullet in the leg, and local doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is called to treat him. The next morning, however, Samantha, the prisoner and a second deputy are gone, kidnapped by whatever was in that valley that came looking for Arquette – who, it turns out, desecrated a sacred burial ground.
Hunt, Chicory, a local dandy named Brooder (Matthew Fox) and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) — hobbled by a broken leg himself — mount a rescue expedition to the valley, which is home to the “troglodytes,” a clan of cannibalistic savages so hideous and primitive that a local Native American is outraged when one of the townspeople refer to the clan as his “kind.” Our quartet of heroes sets out nonetheless, unprepared for the atrocities that lie in store yet determined to bring the victims home.
I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk described elsewhere online as The Searchers meets Cannibal Holocaust, and that’s sort of correct: it has elements of both those films, along with titles like Unforgiven and The Descent. One of the things that works in the film’s favor is its leisurely pace: at 132 minutes, there is plenty of time devoted to the realistic details of the setting and story and, more importantly, character development. By the time the story transitions from Western to full-blown horror in the third act — and make no mistake, this is gruesome, cringe-inducing stuff — you’re so invested in these people and the stakes that the switch to something much darker and weirder doesn’t feel strained at all.
Central to the movie is the bantering relationship between the grizzled, no-nonsense yet humane Hunt and his wingman, the not-quite-bright but still fiercely ethical and resourceful Chicory. Russell delivers the tough, hard-as-nails performance you’d expect — tempered with moments of compassion and quite dignity — but Jenkins (whom I almost didn’t recognize at first) is truly sensational as a lonely, elderly widower who finds strength and peace in pondering simple notions at the strangest times. This magnificent actor gets all kinds of accolades (and deservedly so) for high-brow material like Olive Kitteridge, but he shines just as brightly in genre fare like The Cabin in the Woods and this, which could be one of his finest roles to date.
Wilson and Fox are also quite strong, their characters’ relationship tested by the latter’s one-time pursuit of Arthur’s wife but both of them willing to put aside old grudges for the greater good. Fox’s Brooder is striking, a man who seems possessed of complete confidence but whose calm exterior masks deep, tragic wounds brought about by the clash between early American settlers and Native American tribes. Wilson’s Arthur is positioned as the weak link — his wife certainly seems to be the stronger of the two — but every time he seems to be on the verge of dragging himself down for good he finds some last vestige of courage and vigor to keep going.
He’ll need it, because the cannibal clan are as horrific a creation as any variation on the mutant cave dweller template. Painted chalk white, with tusks inserted into their mouths and their form of communication a frightening ululation (itself achieved through some grisly alterations of their throats), these cunning, predatory and ruthless beings could probably give a squad of Marines a run for their money, much less a ragtag group of 19th century settlers. There is one death in the film’s last third that is among the most brutal and gory I’ve seen in years, while the rest of the violence in the climactic scenes had me squirming with both dread and physical repulsion.
That’s where Bone Tomahawk displays its exploitational roots, and if not for the character work that had come in the previous 90 minutes, the movie would descent into simple offensiveness. But because we’ve come to care about these men –- because we’ve grown to understand the kindly exasperation yet deep affection between Hunt and Chicory –- we’re bound to their fates no matter what indignities they must go through.
The film may feel slow at times — it’s very deliberately paced — and although it touches on larger issues like the racism and ignorance of the Old West, it doesn’t use the Troglodytes as metaphor the way it might have. That and the rather unexceptional cinematography make the movie feel smaller when it could have used some of that good old Western epic scope. The ending also doesn’t resonate quite as powerfully as I think Zahler wanted it to, but those are not major dissatisfactions in a movie that’s full of larger pleasures, including the formal yet endearingly quirky dialogue. There’s a lot of talk in Bone Tomahawk for such a genre remix, but coming from this cast, you don’t mind it one bit.
Bone Tomahawk is out in theaters and via VOD now.