Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk was a surprising hidden gem from 2015. Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox, this Western horror film takes its time to get rolling. In the interim, the film establishes an almost survivalist tone, but is still comfortable with its own brand of humor. With a title derived from the preferred weapon of the insane savage antagonists, Bone Tomahawk offers much more attention to detail than your standard slasher flick, and by placing the action in the Old West, we also get to see Kurt Russell’s mustache in its full glory.
The problem with Bone Tomahawk, though, is evident from its most basic synopsis. Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Hunt, and when a drifter (David Arquette) shows up, he calls to the doctors assistant Samantha to heal the man’s wounds (which may or may not have been caused by Hunt’s arrest attempt). Samantha leaves her husband Arthur in bed with a broken leg to go help, but is abducted by the same savages who sent the drifter seeking shelter (along with a couple more people). The next morning, Sheriff Hunt discovers the abduction and learns that the clan responsible for these crimes are known as troglodytes, who live in “The Valley of the Starving Man”. The local native explains that these men are cannibalistic savages who have become sadistic due to their isolation from other men. Brooder (Fox), an expert in killing Indians (ugh), joins Hunt, his deputy sheriff Chicory (Jenkins), and the hobbled Arthur in rescuing Samantha from the cannibals.
So, here’s the issue. The trope of indigenous peoples being depicted as bloodthirsty savages is well-worn by this point. From the heyday of Hollywood all the way up to 2015’s The Revenant, natives are often shown as backwards, bloodthirsty, and uncivilized. Bone Tomahawk makes a slight effort in crafting the troglodytes as far removed from the normal natives, but Brooder still goes on a diatribe about how many Indians he has killed, and seems to hold a vendetta against them all. Even then, the troglodytes are absolute monsters, and their grotesque customs casts them as decidedly inhuman. For me, I think the film makes enough of an effort to cast these creatures as distinct from the “normal” Indians in the West that there is no inherent racism in the story. Much like how The Hills Have Eyes isn’t an indictment of hillbillies or Nevadans in general (or is it?), but specifically creates these mutated versions with which to craft a horror story around. Let’s put it this way: if the idea of a tribe of cannibalistic native Americans bothers you on principle, Bone Tomahawk will probably make you angry.
For those of you that are still interested, you’ll be rewarded with a unique and peculiar film. As the title of this piece suggests, it is hard to classify this film in a single genre. There is obviously an element of the slasher horror film, with the troglodytes wielding tomahawks made from their victim’s bones. Like the best films of this nature, our baddies are kept largely out of sight until the final third of the film where we get to see them in all their grotesque glory. Still, their presence is always felt, even if only in the abstract as our characters wonder at the fate of those who have been captured.
As our four compatriots ride towards The Valley of the Starving Man, we are treated to a fair amount of humor, too. Chicory in particular cannot stop jabbering about this, that, or the other thing, and while Sheriff Hunt usually just lets him drone on, occasionally Chicory gets on even his nerves. Their relationship injects the film with an unexpected charm, and makes their long slog through the frontier more palatable.
There is also a distinct survivalist mood to the film, especially the second act. As mentioned before, Arthur has a broken leg (he fell off the roof), but this is not going to stop him from rescuing his wife. Regardless, it is clear that Arthur is in no state to go on this mission. He has to be helped onto his horse, is in constant pain, and even re-injures his leg multiple times. About halfway through the journey, their horses are stolen and everyone is crestfallen, but still Arthur presses on with a makeshift crutch. It is kind of horrible and gut-wrenching, but a great bit of characterization as it dramatizes the extreme love that Arthur has for Samantha.
And finally, all of this is wrapped in the carapace of your standard Western. Sheriff Hunt is your standard guff-talking straight-shooter who runs his town with authority. The frontier is dusty and dangerous, but the capability of these men to survive in this wasteland shines through at every turn. There are plenty of bandits, shoot-outs, and campfire discussions. In essence, the film uses the Western genre as a sandbox in which to play.
More than anything else, the strength of Bone Tomahawk lay in its detail. Conversations always feel fluid and real, even when dealing with something as absurd as a cannibal Indian tribe that crafts its victim’s bones into weapons. Early on in the film, as Hunt discusses his plan to effect a rescue with the mayor’s wife, there is a moment where the mayor tries to step in and demand respect. Hunt doesn’t veer in the slightest, and reiterates his wishes to the person who is actually competent and in charge: the woman. It is a small thing, left completely unexplained and with no excess attention paid to it, but it helps flesh out this world beautifully. Details like this are common throughout the film, and raise the quality from your standard B-level film into something memorable.
Bone Tomahawk slipped by most people on account of a low budget and limited release. But now that the film has come to streaming services like Amazon, more people will have an opportunity to see it. If anything about a Horror Slasher Survivalist Road Comedy amid a Western backdrop piques your interest, then you’ll find something to like in this one.