Bone Tomahawk

2015/ USA, UK

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Starring: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit

Words: N. Scatcherd

Bone Tomahawk is a strange film; a ‘cannibal horror Western’ (and as genre mash-ups go, that combination certainly grabs the attention) that feels like a cross between The Searchers and Cannibal Holocaust. It is at once a patient, deliberately paced ‘rescue mission’ Western aswell as being unsettling and – at least in its final twenty minutes – breathtakingly brutal B-movie fare about man-eating troglodytes. Those with the patience for indulgent dialogue, the endurance for hardcore splatter and a fondness for Kurt Russell’s majestic mutton chop facial hair will find that Bone Tomahawk is a compelling oddity well worth tracking down. Everyone else will probably find the whole thing too slow, too nasty or just too weird to get onboard with.

Our story is simple enough. Following his panicked desecration of a tribal burial ground (fleeing in terror from the murder of his partner in crime), outlaw Purvis (Arquette) comes to the ironically named town of Bright Hope for shelter. After tangling briefly with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his well-meaning but generally inept backup deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), he’s taken to one of the cells for questioning. But when he falls ill the town’s doctor, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lilli Simmons) is called to tend to him, leaving her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) at home to nurse a recently sustained broken leg by himself.

Anyway, tribesmen* sneak into the town seeking vengeance for their defiled territory, kidnapping Purvis and Samantha as well as a young jail guard (Evan Jonigkeit). Hunt, Chicory, smarmy gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox) and Arthur O’Dwyer set out on a desperate rescue mission, and it’s their journey that takes up the majority of the film’s runtime. The trek is complicated by O’Dwyer’s injury – a broken leg being a far more serious thing in the age of the American frontier than it thankfully is in the 21st century – and the film derives much of its tension from the question of whether or not his stoic determination to rescue his wife is enough to actually get the job done, when one nasty fall could mean amputation, perhaps even death. He’s almost superhumanly motivated to get Samantha home safe, but he also can’t help slowing down the group out to achieve that very goal.

Director S. Craig Zahler comes from a literary background, writing novels and screenplays before venturing into directing, and this appreciation of the written and spoken word is evident in Bone Tomahawk’s verbose dialogue. It revels in period speech and the occasional meandering monologue, and in the hands of lesser actors it would probably get tiring. Happily, the cast are all on great form, with an almost unrecognisable Richard Jenkins standing out in particular as the slightly bemused, perhaps not too bright but still eminently likeable Chicory. His musings about flea circuses and the perils of reading in the bath would easily irritate if delivered by a less charismatic actor, but he brings warmth and dim-witted charm which stop things from feeling interminably doom-filled.

This is mostly a Very Serious and Very Grim movie after all, and some of the violence really is tough to watch. Zahler seems to delight in catching the viewer off guard; the film generally takes its time with protracted scenes of our protagonists slowly traversing vast stretches of desert, and then suddenly there’ll be a shocking jolt of violence. Whereas other films might bolster such shifts into physical action with a heart-pumping musical score or lots of fast cutting, Bone Tomahawk doesn’t rely on such naked manipulation. One sequence, wherein Sheriff Hunt grapples with one of the troglodytes up close and personal, is genuinely tense precisely because the violence plays out fairly slowly and without musical accompaniment. It’s a desperate brawl, not some slick action movie fight scene, and the film establishes a kind of casual brutality which negates the usual comfort of knowing the protagonist(s) will win every fight and come out on top. Another scene – which I won’t spoil – has the dubious honour of featuring one of the most genuinely grotesque and jaw-dropping movie deaths I’ve ever watched, and again, its intensity is heightened by the lack of music and the way the camera doesn’t flinch from showing every thoroughly nasty detail.

Ultimately, Bone Tomahawk is an enjoyably strange creation which seems to relish toying with audience expectation. It succeeds in injecting a streak of cannibal horror weirdness into the type of traditional Western genre tropes you’ve seen one hundred times before, and its idiosyncrasies make it an intriguingly fresh-feeling experience which will no doubt stand up on repeat viewings… provided you’ve got the stomach.

*The film is fully aware of the potential for some dodgy racial politics in playing on the old ‘cowboys vs Injuns’ stereotype, and so goes out of its way to assure the audience that these “troglodytes”, as they are referred to, are not intended to be representative of Native Americans as a whole. Rather they are a group of mud-caked cave-dwellers who communicate in strange, subhuman roars and eat their enemies. Essentially they perform the same role as zombies popularly do – they’re human beings, sure, but far enough removed from humanity to be portrayed as comfortably killable ‘Others’.