When I read the comments about Bone Tomahawk coming out of Fantastic Fest 2015, I thought two things. 1. Why are all of these horror folks talking about a western? and 2. That is a fucking rad name for a movie. The latter is self-explanatory. The former was quickly cleared up when I read a tweet from a veteran horror fan who said the “cave” was one of the most gruesomely hard-to-watch things she’d ever seen. That’s enough of an endorsement for me. I avoided all but he most superficial mentions of the film on Twitter and horror blogs. I did check out the trailer (something I sometimes avoid until after i’ve seen a film) because I was just too excited to avoid all contact completely. It just got me more excited. I’m a pretty big fan of gritty westerns. (remember my “Blood Meridian” review? if not, just click on that book title, friend!) I mean, David Arquette, guys! (i’m kidding. we all know Kurt Russell is the real reason we see anything, right?)
Bone Tomahawk opens with two “brigands” (David Arquette and Sid Haig (nice!)) killing a couple in their sleep to rob them. A gun is discharged drawing the attention of an unseen menace blowing some eerie fucking horns in the dusty canyon. That menace shows up in the form of a shadowy, half-glimpsed nearly naked man who attacks Haig. Arquette flees only to end up in Bright Hope, the tiny town Kurt Russell happens to be the sheriff of. Now, Russell don’t stand for no sketchy strangers in his town (natch) and confronts/non-fatally shoots Arquette and throws him in jail. Patrick Wilson’s (who is laid up with a broken leg) wife, Samantha, is called in to remove the bullet. The eerie (like, super fucking eerie) horns are heard distantly a short time later. Next morning, a stable boy is found dismembered, horses are missing, and Arquette, Samantha, and deputy are missing as well. An arrow is found that the local expert determines belongs to a long disowned tribe of ultra-savage native people he refers to as troglodytes (cave-dwellers). He points out their stomping grounds on a map, and Sheriff heads out to find/rescue the kidnapped folks with his none-too-bright (and old) back-up deputy (Richard Jenkins), a slick Indian killer (Matthew Fox), and the crippled (their words) husband in tow. To understate matters: their journey is not an easy one.
This story is so easy to buy into. There could have been a dusty little town of cattlemen (at least i think cows are what they were talking about when they said ‘beeves’) suspicious of outsiders. There could have been a tiny tribe of inbred indigenous cave-dwellers that managed to stay hidden from the white man until the late 1800s. And there could have been a disastrous intersection of those two closed-off cultures. The dialogue is as authentic as I assume dialogue from that time period would be. (it’s not like i’m going to fact check it or anything) Everyone called everyone else by their title and last name. They used polysyllabic words and sounded generally intelligent. Even the least intelligent character wasn’t a caricature of a dummy. The characters were all rich with emotional ranges and individual convictions and motivations. All too often, lesser westerns default to stereotypes of rowdy, slow-witted frontier types. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t employ that trope. Where it really shines though is in the fear it elicits. This is a classic western storyline – “the other” (usually American Indians) clashes with civilized society and a posse sets out for rescue/justice/revenge. The film uses that platform to really make the viewer fear “the other”. They are preternatural in their savagery and their otherworldly howls are far outside of anything our heroes have ever encountered before. These troglodytes are as near to monsters as one could imagine, adding a bit of creature feature to this harrowing story. The hybrid blend is seamless. I’m excited to see what director, S. Craig Zahler, will do next.
The Final Cut: Bone Tomahawk is a believable, ultra-gritty western with plenty of gore and violence to satisfy horror fans. The “creature” designs are right out of a xenophobic nightmare. The otherworldly sounds the troglodytes make are especially effective.