Bone Tomahawk (2015): Western Horror

Tense western/horror mashup, Bone Tomahawk, stars Matthew Fox, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson as four men who head out into the desert to rescue kidnapped townsfolk from savage cannibals.

Violent, intimidating, primitive and visceral, Bone Tomahawk tells the story of a worldly, well dressed gunslinger (Fox), an old timer deputy (Jenkins), a cowboy with a broken leg (Wilson), and their leader – a tough and grizzled sheriff (Russell). The group leaves the relative safety of their small frontier town after a Native American attack sees two townsfolk kidnapped, one of which is the cowboy’s wife (played by Lili Simmons).

Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk.
Matthew Fox in Bone Tomahawk.

But this isn’t quite the traditional cowboys and Indians narrative it seems. The film is quick to establish that its ‘savages’ are true savages –  a bastard tribal sect, known as the ‘Troglodytes’. They’re  cave-dwelling cannibals, angered by the white mans incursion onto their ancient burial grounds.

Bone Tomahawk’s Genre Mashup

Horror/western hybrid, Bone Tomahawk is only in retrospect, with much of its run time consumed by the journey itself. Walking and talking fills up most of the narrative, and the effect echoes Gus Van Sant’s slow burning desert film Gerry. But those echoes are quickly drowned out by the cries of the Troglodytes, who sew bone fragments into their throats, lending them a primitive and frightening voice.

These cries, initially in the background, become louder as our quartet near the Troglodytes burial ground, and cave home. Guns are drawn, axes are thrown, and arrows fly as the quiet of the journey gives way to the obligations of the genre. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t shy away from the gore of its horror conventions, or the necessity of its western style showdown, with an elliptical ending that mirrors the film’s opening sequence.

Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins in Bone Tomahawk.
The sheriff and his deputy: Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins.

Perhaps the best part of the film however is the amount of time invested in the characters.  And each actor rises to the occasion, with excellent performances all round. Fox is quiet, but his character is capable, violent, and although he has the veneer of civilisation, he’s just as savage as the cannibals he’s hunting. Richard Jenkins turns what would normally be a bit part into something notable, with his depiction of an aging yet loyal deputy. Russell is compelling as the sheriff, a man driven by something close to righteousness, hard bitten but sympathetic. And Patrick Wilson, skilled and effective as ever,  stands out with his performance as a cowboy, hell bent on saving his wife no matter what the cost.

Righteous Violence?

The strong character development and the actors’ performances ensure that the third act is truly painful to watch. There’s little hope for our intrepid western heroes, as they run head on into the horror of the Troglodytes cannibal ways. Civilisation clashes with the primitive world of pagan beliefs, similar to another great horror movie – The Wicker Man.

Religion plays a part here, too. Wilson’s cowboy prays to the Christian God as he loads his gun, and crawls along the floor like a snake, killing savages, while dragging his broken leg behind him.

Patrick Wilson's hobbled cowboy in Bone Tomahawk.
Patrick Wilson’s hobbled cowboy.

A Writerly Film

S. Craig Zahler, a novelist as well as a musician, screenwriter, and now film director, brings a writerly influence to his eloquent genre mashup. From the considered characters, to the frequently comedic scripting, Bone Tomahawk is an endlessly appealing debut film. Benji Bashki’s cinematography lends the film a retro western tint, with stunning work foregrounding the characters within vast desert scapes, and towering mountain ranges. The sense of space is considered, and the dusty hues provides the film with a distinctive yet familiar classical western aesthetic.

The horror genre only really emerges with the face to face introduction of the Troglodytes. The composition doesn’t change. Bone Tomahawk is a western, with a subversive horror edge that comes through in the action on screen, rather than via any of the genre’s usual framing devices, like ominous music, or darkened visuals.

Zahler’s film leans heavily on the talents of its actors, and its narrative is certainly tried and true. But within the familiar, Bone Tomahawk finds great scope for creativity, and the expected quickly gives way to the unexpected. The story is full of broken bodies, death, and overwhelming violence. It’s far from cheerful, but neither is its depiction of violence gleeful. Instead it’s restrained, and all the more powerful for it.

 

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