Bone Tomahawk (2015)

A well-made modern take on the classic Western with excellent performances and a taut script. However, the extreme gore in the third act of this otherwise great movie makes it hard to recommend to just anyone.

Josho Brouwers

Westerns were immensely popular in the 1960s, but the genre petered out in the course of the 1970s. Traditional westerns have been very rare in the past two decades, though there have been a few good ones: for example, Appaloosa (2008), directed by and starring Ed Harris, is worth checking out, as are the two recent Quentin Tarantino pastiches. Cowboys and Aliens (2011) added a science-fiction twist to the genre. Bone Tomahawk, released in 2015, mixes a conventional western with horror. It’s a far superior film to Cowboys and Aliens: it looks great, the cast are fantastic, and the script is taut, featuring some excellent dialogue and characterization.

Unfortunately, Bone Tomahawk’s third act features one or two instances of such excessive blood and gore that it is a difficult film to recommend to just anyone. If you’ve watched a lot of violent, bloody horror movies, you will probably have no trouble with the sudden outbursts of extreme gore in Bone Tomahawk. But if you’re expecting a western with violence comparable to a Sergio Leone movie, you might want to think again.

The beginning of Bone Tomahawk sets the tone for what’s to come. Two drifters, Purvis and Buddy, just killed a group of travellers and are robbing them when they are scared by the sound of approaching horses. They retreat and find themselves in what looks like a Native American site of worship. Buddy is attacked and slain; Purvis runs off, arriving eventually in the small town of Bright Hope. There, he is confronted by the town’s sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell). Hunt doesn’t trust Buddy and ends up shooting him in the leg. He is carried off to jail. With the town’s doctor drunk and unavailable, Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), the doctor’s assistant, is asked to come and help out.

A stable boy is killed during the night by unknown assailants, who brutalized the corpse. Returning to town, the sheriff find the jail empty, with Buddy, Samantha, and his deputy missing. A vital clue is found on the scene: a primitive arrow. A local Native American explains that the stable boy was killed and the others taken by members of a savage troglodyte clan who hide in the hills. These cannibals clearly followed Buddy back to Bright Hope and now abducted him and the others to serve as food.

Ready for anything? Kurt Russell gives an excellent performance in Bone Tomahawk.

The sheriff decides to ride out and rescue Samantha and the others and is accompanied on his quest by the doddering old Chicory (Richard Jenkins), American dandy John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Samantha’s husband, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson). Making things more difficult is the fact that O’Dwyer injured his leg in an accident before the start of the movie, severely limiting his ability to keep up with the others on foot if they should ever lose their horses (which they inevitably do over the course of their pursuit). Do these four men manage to rescue Samantha and the others? I won’t spoil the story for you, but there are some interesting twists and turns along the way.

The movie is written and directed by S. Craig Zahler and produced on what amounts to a shoestring budget. The movie looks absolutely gorgeous, though, with beautiful landscapes and excellent set design. The dialogue is short and to the point, and seems to capture the down and gritty Western tone with aplomb. And despite the fact that the movie’s overall tone is very serious, there are some lighthearted touches. At one point, for example, Hunt is making something. Chicory notes, “That tea smells gruesome.” Hunt corrects him: “It’s soup.” Without missing a beat, Chicory says, “Oh. You think I can have some?”

There are lots of neat touches that tell us a lot about the characters. A particularly good scene occurs at the start of the film. Hunt goes to O’Dwyer to inform him that his wife has been abducted. O’Dwyer immediately leaves his house to march into town, as best as his gammy leg affords him. Hunt simply watches him go for a moment, then picks up the boots that O’Dwyer left behind, shuts the door that was left open, and then follows him. Those are small touches, but a lesser director would simply have cut the scene after O’Dwyer’s reaction to keep things moving along.

Since the plot is so simple, the movie relies heavily on neat little touches like the foregoing, which in turn demand a strong cast. Bone Tomahawk‘s characters seem tailor-made to fit the actors. Matthew Fox’s Brooder comes across as a hard man, but he is hard for a reason, and doesn’t deviate from his course at any point in the film. Kurt Russell’s sheriff Hunt is a man on a mission, with a great sense of duty. Richard Jenkins lends a soft touch to the proceedings with his slightly foolish, but well-intended Chicory. And Patrick Wilson’s Arthur O’Dwyer is very much the heart of the movie: a man rendered vulnerable by his injured leg, yet driven to pursue those who have abducted his wife. The love he feels for Samantha is believable, and when he cringes as his companions try to set broken bone, you feel everything he does, too.

On the lookout. Things are only going to get worse.

The main theme of Bone Tomahawk appears to be duty. Hunt has a duty towards the people he is sworn to protect. Brooder has a duty to someone from his past. Chicory has a duty towards the sheriff, a man he admires more than anyone else. And O’Dwyer is driven by his duty to love, hold, and protect his wife. The cannibals provide the excuse we need to see these men strive against adversity, to see what makes them tick. None of them flinch in the face of danger. None of them give up on their attempt to rescue those who were taken.

That doesn’t make the protagonists perfect heroes, however. Hunt’s sense of duty forces him to chase down cannibals on what seems like a desperate quest, leaving his wife behind. Brooder has a cynical side that seems to emphasize self preservation over more or less anything else, enabling him to kill a perfect stranger. Chicory’s admiration of Hunt borders at times on fawning. O’Dwyer’s stubbornness forces the others to make some hard decisions and almost costs him his leg and his life.

Bone Tomahawk is, in my opinion, one of the best movies released in 2015. But it’s a pity that a few scenes of extreme violence, including a very graphic scene in which a human is slaughtered by the cannibalistic troglodytes for food, make it a hard movie to recommend to just anyone. If you think you have the stomach for it, though, I do hope that you’ll check it out.