Bone Tomahawk’s Perfect Shot

In the midst of a spectacularly gory horror western, Bone Tomahawk throws in a perfectly-crafted piece of visual storytelling...

Great horror brings with it a hint of mischief. Like a mischievous child dangling a spider in front of a younger sibling, the genre quietly takes delight in teasing, terrorising and generally pushing our buttons.

There’s a pleasingly broad streak of mischief running through Bone Tomahawk, S. Craig Zahler’s earthy horror-western. From its opening shot, throats are cut, limbs are hacked off, bodies rent limb from limb, yet it’s all served up with such character and blackly comic relish that it’s far less harrowing than it sounds.

In the Old West, a pair of robbers stumble on the stomping ground of a flesh-eating cave dwellers; one escapes their clutches and fleers to the nearby town of Bright Hope, unaware that he’s being tracked by one or two of the troglodytes. Late one night, the flesh-eaters raid the town, killing a stable hand and abducting the robber, a doctor attending to his wounds and the sheriff’s young deputy.

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Determined to get them back alive, Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) saddles up with his old friend and back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a smooth-talking gunslinger, Brooder (Matthew Fox) to find the flesh-eaters’ hiding place out in the hills. A fourth member of the party, O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) has a particularly personal reason to head off into the badlands – the abducted doctor, Samantha (Lili Simmons) also happens to be his wife. 

So begins a deliciously off-kilter mix of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes – a free-wheeling film with vicious jabs of gore and wonderfully-crafted dialogue. It’s the latter aspect which makes Bone Tomahawk such an entertaining movie; where so many horror films skimp on characterisation in favor of plot, atmospheric build-up or just plain old gore, Zahler takes the time to introduce a group of distinctive and generally likeable characters.

Chickory, in particular, is quite possibly the most adorable supporting character in any recent horror film: a guileless old-timer who chats incessantly  about everything from reading in the bath to the delights of a travelling flea circus. This first conversation, in which Chickory and Kurt Russell’s Sheriff talk drowsily about using a music stand to prevent your book from getting all wet from the bathwater, is a great example of Zahler’s deft writing. Exchanges like this – coupled with some sublime acting from Russell and Jenkins – make us believe they’re really friends with a long history. That friendship, in turn, makes us care what happens to Chickory and Sheriff Hunt as they close in on the villains’ dreaded cave.

This brings us, after all that preamble, to what is for this writer Bone Tomahawk‘s single finest shot. It’s the perfect collision of camera placement and composition: more than just a pretty picture, it speaks volumes about the characters, furthers the plot, builds tension and exemplifies the film’s mischievous quality.

Here it is:

Yes, it’s a simple, locked-off shot of a barn. At first glance, it might look as though there isn’t much remarkable about it. Yet there’s brilliance in its simplicity: the pleasing compositional balance between the figures on the left and the smaller door on the right; the way the darkness of Sheriff Hunt’s suit ties in to the darkness of the open stable door. The textures of peeling paint, rotten wood, and straw sell the reality of the Old West.

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Above all, it sells the mortal, everyday humanity of the leading characters; a more traditional John Wayne-type cowboy might stride up to the stable door with a confident swagger. Sheriff Hunt, on the other hand, approaches with caution, having been told that there’s a dead stable hand lying inside. All the same, the sheriff leads from the front, his old, hunched deputy lagging behind and the rotund local man Clarence (Fred Melamed) bringing up the rear. There’s also a bit of comedy mixed into the tension: the sight of three men creeping towards a doorway like the dwarves in Snow White.

A lesser director (and cinematographer – Benji Bakshi) might have rushed over a scene like this to get to the next bit of action, but Bone Tomahawk‘s makers recognize the gold in milking a quiet moment of tension for all it’s worth. The Sheriff is unsure whether the raiders are still in the stable, and neither are we; it’s a moment that shows – with relatively little dialogue – that Hunt is gradually figuring out just how serious the situation is. 

Bone Tomahawk was shot on a reported budget of just $1.8m – less than the investment put into a single episode of some high-profile American TV shows – and yet the movie succeeds thanks to the invention in moments such as this. You could cast a critical eye over the sets and prosthetic effects in the latter stages of the movie, but for me, this is the less interesting part of Bone Tomahawk in any case; it’s how deeply Zahler gets us to care about this flawed, motley group of characters that makes the film such an effective genre piece. Quite a number of westerns present machismo as a virtue; Bone Tomahawk depicts it as a dunder-headed drawback.

Cheerfully button-pushing though the gore is, it’s the craft in the film’s writing, acting and visual storytelling – such as that perfect shot in the first act – that really stick in the mind. In short, come for the horror; stay for Sheriff Hunt and his loveably flawed posse.