Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.
I’d heard about Bone Tomahawk and that it was a grueling horror movie worth seeing. Imagine my surprise when I found it at a local library. This isn’t the kind of film that libraries normally carry in my experience. It’s easy to find dramas in the library, not nearly so easy to find horror, particularly horror that hits the gore factor hard. But, as I say, I’d heard about it, and figured it was worth a watch.
Bone Tomahawk is very much two different films. There is the Western part of the film, much of which feels like a pretty standard film in the genre. Then there is the cannibalistic troglodyte part of the film that is anything but. In a sense, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has updated the Italian cannibal films like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox and put a decidedly American spin on them. Or, if you prefer, it’s a Wild West version of The Hills Have Eyes.
The film opens with two drifters named Buddy (Sid Haig) and Purvis (David Arquette) slaughtering a group of people at a campsite. The two are bandits who prey on any victims they can find, slaying them while the sleep and stealing their belongings. This time, they don’t quite kill one of the victims, who takes a shot at them. The shot attracts something, though. The two run off and find themselves in something like a primitive burial ground. They are attacked, and Buddy is killed, but Purvis gets away.
The scene now changes to the town of Bright Hope. Here we meet some of the key residents. For the purposes of this film, those key residents include the sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell); his deputy, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit); his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins); the local man about town, John Brooder (Matthew Fox); and the O’Dwyers, Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and Samantha (Lili Simmons). Arthur O’Dwyer is currently laid up with a broken leg, which has kept him off his latest cattle drive.
A couple of weeks after the incident of the opening scene, Chicory spots a man changing his clothes and burying something on the outskirts of town. This stranger turns out to be Purvis. When Sheriff Hunt goes to question him, he’s not happy with Purvis’s answers and shoots him in the leg when Purvis tries to run away. With the doctor in his cups, his is forced to call on the next-best alternative: Samantha O’Dwyer. She heads to the sheriff’s office to tend to the prisoner. Deputy Nick stays behind to make sure she gets home safely.
But she doesn’t. The next day, a body is discovered at a local stable and all of the horses are missing. More concerning, the sheriff’s office is empty and a long, bone-tipped arrow is found embedded in one of the pillars inside. Questioning a local native, the residents learn that Nick, Samantha, and the drifter have been captured by degenerate “troglodyte” natives who live in a valley some distance away and survive by cannibalism. Sheriff Hunt, Chicory, John Brooder, and Arthur O’Dwyer, despite his leg injury, head out to rescue or avenge despite being warned that none of them will come back alive.
The second act consists of the journey to the Valley of the Starved Men. Friction occurs between the characters, particularly between Arthur and John. Arthur’s broken leg slows him up terribly when a group of bandits steal their horses, and an altercation forces him to stay behind and follow as best he can while the other three carry on, marking their trail as best they can. Naturally, we’re going to get to the cave where the troglodytes live and there will be bloody work done there in spades.
The biggest issue with Bone Tomahawk is the section before the quartet heads out on their rescue party. The section in the town is slow and not particularly interesting. More seriously, none of the characters are given a great deal of depth here. It’s not until we get to the road that we really understand that Chicory is an incessant talker and the John Brooder is both a ladies’ man and proud of his record of killing as many natives as he can. It’s as if Zahler couldn’t be bothered with the sections that didn’t concern bloodletting and torture, so he didn’t put as much effort into them.
Other things are done very well. There is no soundtrack to Bone Tomahawk. The closest thing to music comes from the troglodytes themselves. They are depicted as essentially subhuman, prone to decorating themselves with the skulls and artifacts of slain animals, generally by incorporating them directly into their bodies. In addition, they appear to have no language, but have, via crude surgery, grafted something like whistles to their larynxes. They communicate thus by screaming, a sound that comes from both their mouths and their throats through the terrible whistles.
There is a scene here of almost staggering brutality, and my guess is that it was this scene that Zahler saw as the central moment of the film. Several of our characters are in cages, forced to watch a gruesome moment happen in front of them, and, like them, we aren’t given the chance to look away, either. We’re forced to watch something of shocking and terrible horror. This moment feels like it lasts forever, even though it’s actually fairly quick.
I wouldn’t want to watch this again any time in the near future. Bone Tomahawk is ugly and brutal, but it’s well acted and well made. Richard Jenkins is particularly good as Chicory, who is the closest thing the film has to comic relief. He’s playing a role similar to one that Walter Brennan might have played 70 or 80 years ago, but this time in service of something terribly inhuman.
If nothing else, it’s a hell of a directorial debut.
Why to watch Bone Tomahawk: It’s one of the better directorial debuts you’ll find from recent years.
Why not to watch: If you’re even a little squeamish, you’ll have real problems with the third act.