Bone Tomahawk” (2016) is a rare horror-Western and also a standout example of the genre. Writer-director S. Craig Zahler mashes up John Wayne and Eli Roth, and it shouldn’t work, but it comes together beautifully because of his smart structure. It also doesn’t hurt that he employs four elite actors who are intensely watchable even when they’re simply crunching across the bleak rocky landscape.
The story is simple: A woman doctor, an assistant deputy and a prisoner are plucked from the jail one night in the frontier town of Bright Hope. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell, gifting us with one more Western role), Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), local man Brooder (an unrecognizably mustachioed Matthew Fox) and the doc’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) set out on a rescue mission. A local Indian gives them the general location of the cave-dwelling cannibals who likely took the trio.
“Bone Tomahawk’s” structure is horror, then Western, then horror. It starts with the eventual prisoner, Buddy (David Arquette), slicing people’s throats and stealing from them. So we can’t say we aren’t warned about the film’s violence, which comes back in the third act in a way that would make even Quentin Tarantino say “Good god, man!”
Because of that, this is not a Western you should recommend to your dad or grandpa. Yet the middle chunk of the movie is an elite example of a Western, as the quartet and their horses make the long journey. It should be boring, but instead it’s an engaging lesson in how life used to be.
Similar to “The Witch” from the same year, “Bone Tomahawk” pays close attention to how people spoke at a specific time and place in history. They tend to use complete sentences, formality, and no slang. Hunt is crisp and deliberate in his speech and decisions; it’s how he demonstrates his legitimacy as the sheriff.
The vain Brooder wears white even on the rugged journey, and he won’t brook any argument that he’s wrong for being a proud Indian killer. (And such arguments do come up, as notions of bigotry and prejudice are seeping into the Old West.)
Chicory is a lovable but dim fellow who believes flea circuses use real fleas, but he’s still an ideal deputy, always doing what Hunt tells him. He’s a reminder that the average person in the Old West was less intelligent than a modern person, when it comes to general knowledge of the wider world.
Arthur is obsessed with reclaiming his kidnapped wife (a too calm Lili Simmons, who seems to be acting in a different movie). His broken leg, braced by a board on each side in the days before casts, is in danger of being infected along the hike.
“Bone Tomahawk” doesn’t use much music, so the sound palette is the crunch of gravel and some mundane chatter from Chicory that the others aren’t interested in. Conflicts are of the Western style, rather than horror: there are wild animals about, and Mexicans might steal their horses at night. We are reminded – as with “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but without the laughs – that this is a brutal era to live in, even on a good day. Indeed, these men – other than the desperate Arthur – don’t complain; they respond to situations.
My feeling for the film almost changed with the final act, because of the Rothian levels of creative violence. It makes one reflect on the line between civilized man and the savagery that Homo sapiens are perhaps capable of outside of societal structure. “Bone Tomahawk” is a great horror film, but it’s also one that makes a viewer say “That’s enough horror for me for a while. Let’s see what else is on.”