‘May the Lord have mercy and grant you a swift death’
Bone Tomahawk is a 2015 American horror western film written and directed and written by S. Craig Zahler and produced by Jack Heller and Dallas Sonnier.
The movie stars Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig and Sean Young.
After a man’s wife is kidnapped four men (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins) go to save her and find that many horrors await them…
Seasoned fans of westerns on one hand and horror films on the other will barely need to scratch the surface of novelist/musician S. Craig Zahler’s debut to realise the debt it bears – or the tribute it pays – to classics of each genre. The obvious touchstones are The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, via Cannibal Holocaust, but where novelty is lacking, there is verve in the playing and zest in the writing. There are also longueurs and extraneous exchanges – signs, perhaps, of a first-time writer-director given too much leverage.
The opening – the desecration of sacred ground – generates a sense of déjà vu that never dispels. Tribesmen kidnap one of the perpetrators from the jail in Bright Hope, along with the town’s deputy and Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). Samantha’s husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), a cowboy nursing a broken leg, insists on joining the scratch posse formed by hirsute sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), his garrulous ‘back-up’ deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and the egotistical Brooder (Matthew Fox), an Indian-hater and Samantha’s one-time suitor.
The group dynamic – thorny, occasionally fractious – is well maintained by the ensemble cast, nourished by Zahler’s facility for Tarantino-esque circumlocution. The arduous trek – much of it on foot – takes up the bulk of the two-hour-plus running time, and is played at Arthur’s hobbling pace. The interplay of old-stagers Jenkins and Russell flows effortlessly and naturally, whereas the friction between the younger men feels rather forced.
Brooder’s contempt for Indians – stemming from the deaths of loved ones – invites scrutiny of manifest destiny, but Zahler swerves the issue. Presenting the ‘Indians’ as faceless, flesh-eating savages obviates sympathetic noises about indigenous rights; the only ‘genuine’ Native American – a distinction the character himself is quick to make – pointedly distances his people from the cave-dwelling, clay-smeared ‘troglodytes’ with which the rescuers must tangle.
The writer-director’s observational skills are deployed more fruitfully in areas of concern to traditional westerns – campfire camaraderie; rugged, reverentially photographed landscape. Equally traditional is the relegation of the female lead from strong-willed wife to helpless rescue object. For that matter, Sean Young is wasted in a one-scene cameo. Even then, her face is partly concealed beneath a vast hat brim. It is a shame that when the action shifts to the cannibals’ cave, the raw feel of the environment gives way to a patently bogus and implausibly clean-looking set. Primitive flesh-eaters can also be fastidious housekeepers, it seems.
It is not merely bland production design that strains credulity in the latter stages. Quite how Arthur’s mangled leg manages to look fresher than it had during the film’s gruelling midsection is either a medical marvel or a testament to the restorative powers of tincture of opium, which he sips after his many tumbles on the trail. But such matters only become a concern in hindsight, as Zahler belatedly remembers his horror brief with some ferocious scenes of carnage, including a torso-ripping money shot that matches anything in the canon of Italian cannibal atrocities.
Kevin Grant, MOVIES and MANIA
Related: Death Rides a Horse: Horror Westerns – article by Kevin Grant
“This movie may be mostly a western, but the brief horror it does offer packs a punch […] It’s a great movie all around. Great cast, great story, no plot holes, no needless drama or subplots. As long as you don’t mind a movie mostly about cowboys crossing the desert, and you like gore, you should like Bone Tomahawk.” All Horror
“This exceptionally gruesome Western literally demonises its Native American menace, though it takes care to have a sensible voice (David Midthunder) explain that the tribe they’re up against are as savage as know-nothing whites believe all Native Americans are. In the end, the made-up tribe of bone-weaponry-using, mud-smeared grotesques are just another bunch of Hills Have Eyes-style mutants.” Kim Newman, Empire
Cast and characters:
- Kurt Russell as Sheriff Franklin Hunt
- Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer
- Matthew Fox as John Brooder
- Richard Jenkins as Chicory
- Lili Simmons as Samantha O’Dwyer
- David Arquette as Purvis
- Sid Haig as Buddy
- Geno Segers as Boar Tusks
- Fred Melamed as Clarence
- Kathryn Morris as Lorna Hunt
- Sean Young as Mrs. Porter
- Evan Jonigkeit as Nick
- Eddie Spears
- James Tolkan as The Pianist
- Raw Leiba as Wolf Skull
- Jamison Newlander as The Mayor
- Zahn McClarnon as The Professor
- David Midthunder
- Jay Tavare
- Gray Wolf Herrera
- Robert Allen Mukes
- Brandon Molale as Noseless Troglodyte