Admittedly you do not see a lot of Western/horror films so that makes Bone Tomahawk somewhat of a unique animal. While the film’s western elements work much better than its horror elements, it’s a weird but compelling piece of cinema. The film is the directorial debut of S. Craig Zahler who also wrote the screenplay and stars an impressive cast including Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, David Arquette, Sig Haig, and Robert Mukes.
In the small town of Bright Hope, Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) and back-up deputy Chicory (Jenkins) confront a drifter named Buddy (Arquette) in the town’s tavern. When Buddy refuses to cooperate he is shot and wounded by the Sheriff and taken to the jail for treatment Samantha O’ Dwyer, a local woman with medical skill. Her husband Arthur (Wilson) is at home mending from a broken leg. The following morning a local stable boy is found gruesomely murdered. At the jail there is no trace of Buddy, Samantha, or another deputy.
A crude arrow is found at the scene and a Native American known as the “professor” relates that the arrow belongs to a group of primitive Native American cannibals that lives in caves several days journey from town. They surmise that the cannibals kidnapped the townspeople and form a posse consisting of Sherriff Hunt, Deputy Chicory, the gimpy yet game Arthur O’Dwyer, and John Brooder (Fox) a gunfighter and womanizer. The quartet sets off to rescue the townspeople from the savages and this is where the film takes a strange turn.
While you might expect the film to devolve into a standard action film with gunfights as the men fight the cannibals, we instead get a surprisingly tight character film. Rather than simply express the men from town to the caves several day’s ride away we instead live each day with these men and the grueling journey. We learn about Brooder’s bloody background in his claims to have killed over 100 Native Americans. The pompous Brooder also proclaims himself to be smarter than the other three men since he is the only to have never married.
The journey is particularly arduous for Arthur who limps around badly on a splinted leg, still far from being fully healed. Despite the protests from the other men, Arthur continues on to help save his wife, even after they lose their horses to bandits, leaving him on foot for the last leg of the journey. However, none of the men will be prepared for the unbridled viciousness of the cannibals and soon all of them will be fighting for their own lives.
Bone Tomahawk features characters that are unique yet realistic. These are not bigger than life gunfighters, filled with bravado that you see in most classic westerns. Rather these are everyday men, filled with flaws that are thrown into circumstances more dire than they could have imagined. At first their journey seems slow and unnecessarily padded and yet this is what brings these characters to life. Each has their own idiosyncrasies and own reasons for being on the journey. The performances are fantastic across the board from Russell’s dutiful Sheriff to Wilson’s devoted husband. Particularly outstanding is Richard Jenkins the somewhat dull-witted yet loyal backup deputy
The horror elements were downplayed a little too much for my tastes. There were a few scenes that will definitely nip at the stomachs of the squeamish but these are short and come near the end of the film. The cannibals end up being secondary to the main characters. They don’t speak except in howls and grunts and thus their potency as the antagonists are limited.
At two hours and twelve minutes the film was a tad too long but stick with it…Bone Tomahawk is unlike anything else.
The Making of Bone Tomahawk: (10:04) A behind the scenes feature with the cast and crew discussing the film.
Deleted Scene: (2:30)
Fantastic Fest Q&A: (34:40) This is a Q&A session featuring the cast and director S. Craig Zahler.