Bone Tomahawk is a Wonderfully Horrific Western Road Trip
by Kristin Battestella
For audiences that don’t like westerns or straight, terse drama, the opening half of the 2015 genre bender Bone Tomahawk will be too slow. However, for viewers seeking gritty period pictures and horror films set in unique places, this is definite yes!
While tending to the crazed and wounded outlaw Purvis (David Arquette), Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is abducted by a mysterious, hear tell tribe of nameless, ruthless cave dwellers the local Native Americans fear and avoid. Nonetheless, Bright Hope Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), his elderly deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and local gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox) mount a rescue. However, foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is also determined to join the mission to save his wife despite a broken leg that has kept him off the work trail. It’s a dangerous ride with raiders, injuries, and rough terrain testing the posse’s prayers, convictions, and mettle – yet more primitive, gruesome, bone chilling horrors are in store…
Not Your Average Western
“Flies buzzing” is the first caption of writer and director S. Craig Zahler’s (The Incident) two hour and thirteen minute festival darling, and those words set the tone for the throat slicings, body crunching, and bleak western horrors viewers aren’t supposed to see coming. This is just the lawless ways of the 1890s frontier – robberies and thieving never mind those skulls on torches and Indian burial grounds. The people in this era were gun belt wearing badasses, nothing more than the Wild West is supposed to be happening, right? Howling wolves and spooked horses invoke a western realism, and we expect to see this ironic but charming Old West gritty. The nearby Bright Hope pioneer town provides quaint Victorian interiors, polite men escorting women at night, and a laid back, boots up, playing checkers comfort. However, Bone Tomahawk has no rousing music and sweeping pans or thriving, progressive hustle and bustle to its town. Despite respectful and articulate mannerisms, there’s a gruff to these voices. The empty edge of white civilization is relatively silent with no ritzy to its saloon and a drunken piano player in need of whiskey to finish his ten cent tunes. Although side actions are told rather than seen, that hearsay unreliability adds to the lack of knowing what really occurred, and excising this surplus action builds surprise for when abrupt shootouts and violent confrontations do happen. Suddenly, missing livestock, mysteriously empty jail cells, and torn up bodies add to this isolated town’s crimes and scares.
Arrows in the dark and shadowy figures suggest Indian suspects to the frontier folk, but even friendly Native American scouts fear this no language, nameless troglodyte tribe with behaviors more beast-like than of men. Although everyone looks the part in Bone Tomahawk and we believe these rugged but civilized men forming a revenge posse can handle what’s out there, these old fashioned heroes on white horses are facing some untold, cave dwelling ruthlessness. Bone Tomahawk is very well acted with quality players audiences may not expect would do this kind of seemingly smaller western or horror fair. Hopefully, one recognizes a good script when he sees it, for time is taken to get to know these excellent characters as individuals. Strong banter and a period sense of courage add dimension among the not so unblemished men before the primitive horrors add new terror to the traditional western rescue. Prayers about the campfire, dry humor, personality – viewers quickly come to like these boys, and we’re rooting for them in a pursuit already struggling against the usual trail perils such as gangrene, raiders, and dead horses. There’s a simmering, on edge at night when the posse bed downs. We don’t know what’s going to happen next any more than they know what awaits in the dark. Will such ongoing strain and the agony of travel get to one of them? The exhaustion and hopelessness add tension, arguing, pointing fingers – this is a terse, escalating journey whether the troglodyte horrors are ahead or not. Difficult group decisions must be made amid cynical thoughts and suspicions on what heavy tolls are inevitably happening to the captured. Of course, those horrors are worse than the rescuers of Bone Tomahawk could ever imagine. Survival is slim all around, yet they forge on to face the intense man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself battles.
Nail-biting pocket watch ticking and ominous horns blowing in the wind make the audience pay attention as Bone Tomahawk switches from bright tumbleweeds, dangerous expanse, and western perils to dark caves, trapped interiors, sudden sieges, otherworldly screeching, and harrowing wounds. Yes, there is an hour and a half onscreen before the film horrors arrive – that’s the length of most quick horror productions. One could also argue there is no need for an entire movie’s worth of western study ahead of such horror. Some viewers may want to see the western in itself alone without a horror finale or vice versa. There are several flaws in the final act regarding logistics and implausibilities as well, but the onscreen terrors in Bone Tomahawk forgive any contrivances. We appreciate the deaths, sacrifices, and final cigars before the goodbyes more because we are totally invested in seeing these characters through whatever comes at them in final forty minutes. All that has happened is summed up in few terrifying sentences – arousing all our fears of violation, injury, and desecration and leaving all the heroics we have previously seen for naught. The unpleasant nudity will not be soon forgotten by anyone who sees this movie, and a countdown of kills adds to the hopelessness. Who’s next? The tedium of waiting is at times far worse, and silly discussions fill the interim between the unknown time when life and death is imminent. The horror and fantastics may be tough for the realistic western audiences to accept, however, Bone Tomahawk is a brilliant and complete before, during, and after emotional experience with rubber necking can’t look away and a realistically cringe worthy not often seen in today’s cinema.
A Fine Ensemble
Despite a calm exterior and seemingly quiet post, Sheriff Kurt Russell (Overboard) has the mustache to match the grit in Bone Tomahawk. Franklin Hunt is a wise, relaxed, old fashioned lawman who’s good at his job but nonetheless indulges his old deputy when a stranger’s manner is suspicious. Sheriff Hunt doesn’t think there’s much hope in rescuing those abducted, and his wife objects to the journey, too. However, he is going to see his mission through regardless. Hunt prepares as best possible – he knows they need to care for themselves, their horses, and keep their wits about them to trump any thieves or beasties and do what needs to be done. Polite even when the circumstances turn barbaric, Hunt also knows Arthur O’Dwyer shouldn’t come on this rescue with a broken leg, yet he doesn’t bother asking for the objection. Russell gives a wonderfully poignant performance, and it’s bittersweet to see a man unchanged, doing what he sets out to do, and keeping his word whether the beholden are there to know his convictions or not. Likewise, Patrick Wilson (The Conjuring) has become a pleasing go to horror actor. Arthur’s a strong foreman not used to being laid up at home thanks to injury – nor his doctor’s assistant wife being on top in the bedroom. Arthur doesn’t share his emotions well and has difficulty talking with her, but his love and tenderness are unquestionable. He rides on this mission, learning how to handle his broken leg and show his tears while on the move. Wilson brings to life Arthur’s contradictory behaviors as the desperate husband comes to rely more on opium than prayer to go forward. How can he continue as his injury worsens? We may not think of such breaks, splints, and pain as being so difficult today, but in this wilderness, love is not enough to mount a rescue – or is it?
Arrogant and vain but no less witty and likable gunslinger Matthew Fox (Lost) is the suave, white suit wearing sophisticate of Bone Tomahawk. John Brooder says he’s the most intelligent man there and this rescue needs his smarts, fast shot, and fancy gunnery. Though not always as right as he thinks he is, there is a grain of truth to his tactics when it comes to making camp or taking defensive positions. Unfortunately, his suspicions on outsiders, potential theft, and his shoot first, ask questions later mentality doesn’t always help. Eventually, there are consequences to this quick draw attitude, and while he has good reason to hate certain Indians, Brooder gains sad respect for his horse and learns to trust his compatriots. By contrast, aged deputy Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under) is not on his game but Chicory will continue to do his duty nonetheless – even if he can’t figure out something as simple as how to read a book in the bathtub without getting the paper wet. He talks too much, sometimes adding dry humor and reflection or philosophical speculation, but again, such seemingly random conversation helps fill the idle and take one’s mind off the impending horrors. Chicory is slightly off his rocker yet remains the voice of reason and moral center of the group – a lovely audience anchor pondering what we too are thinking. Although their scenes may seem slightly out of place, humorous but ruthless and hands on killer David Arquette (Scream) and expert throat slitter Sid Haig (House of 1000 Corpses) have some warped fun to open Bone Tomahawk, and their offbeat charm bookends the horror.
Fine older white men though they are, Bone Tomahawk is unfortunately a picture populated with precious few women. Despite being a respectable wife and doctoring assistant named Sam, Lili Simmons (Banshee) is nude fifteen minutes into the movie and feels out of place compared to the more developed male characters. Broadly swinging the pendulum from tender wife to bitchy snob, Sean Young’s (Blade Runner) uppity, domineering mayor’s wife is addressed on the situation instead of her little husband. These frontier women are tough pioneers yet remain sickly or put in their place with sex from their man, and even with these injun abducting the womenfolk fears, the audience sees too little of them to feel a personal investment. Big shocker – the few African American stable hands and servants are killed early in Bone Tomahawk, and Mexican moments or brief Spanish words are treated with xenophobic suspicion. Horses are more important than questioning the death of foreigners, but there are onscreen arguments about whether such reactions are right or wrong, fortunately utilizing the ills of the time for layered social commentary. More importantly, Bone Tomahawk makes the distinction between its horror neanderthal savages and local Native Americans, recognizing this is not normal tribe behavior whilst also implying the Manifest Destiny trespassing of the so called Bright Hope should have left the area alone. Locals knew to steer clear, but did the supposedly smart and superior white man? Nope.
Must See Looks
Old fashioned suits, cowboy hats, and late Victorian décor add to the frontier town woodwork and simplicity in Bone Tomahawk. Proper beds and an oil lamp patina with quills, books, a magnify glass, and period ephemera create a would be civilized and golden interior. I almost wish this was a television series to revisit and explore! However, natural sounds, horses, creaking wood, and swinging saloon doors add a lawless atmosphere alongside the beautiful, but untamed outdoor scenery. Precious few weeping strings and fiddlery accent choice bittersweet moments and echoing gunshots. While animal action, well edited attacks, and on the move tracking shots do capture the restlessness when it happens, Bone Tomahawk is a simple tale simply shot with no need for the sweeping panoramas and whirlwind camerawork often seen in expansive westerns or period pieces going for scope rather than inward terror. Gruesome frontier surgeries, scalping, disemboweling or worse provide enough horror gore while the briefly see beastly men leave room for the audience to imagine more fears. Their natural camouflage, animal trophies, horned masks, and primal, swift moving resistance to bullet grazes completes the disorienting civilized versus uncivilized frights. Subtitles are necessary for any whispering, but the Bone Tomahawk blu-ray release also provides plenty of deleted scenes, featurettes, and film festival Q&As with cast and crew. Unfortunately, it is just baffling when finely crafted pictures such as this are overlooked by the major movie awards. Tsk tsk.
Though worth seeing for the uniqueness alone, this R/Unrated horror is not for everyone. Instead of a cheap slasher with teens in minimum Victorian dressings, this is a niche western brimming with scares we don’t expect. Granted, Bone Tomahawk has many of the same flaws seen again and again with a one and the same writer/director who has no soundboard on what to do or not do. The lengthy run time could have been trimmed further and some scenes should have been more swiftly paced. Bone Tomahawk is also oddly structured as two halves of two different movies – leading with a western character study uninteresting to audiences expecting fast shootouts, boobs, and horror a minute. In fact, most viewers will be unaccustomed to having time dedicated to such full embodied and well developed characters. However, we should embrace this kind of ingenuity not bury it and push pictures like this to fringe audiences, and I would rather have a few slow scenes with extra time to achieve a cinematic vision than a butchered PG-13 picture sacrificing its meaty for maximum cinema screenings and more almighty millions. Despite a blink and you missed it limited box office release, Bone Tomahawk is currently available on several rental and streaming options. Go into Bone Tomahawk cold for full immersion into the fine performances, western drama, Deliverance effectiveness, and entertaining horror.