#80: Bone Tomahawk
A horror western with potential, but hamstrung by stereotypes
This review was originally posted to Twitter on March 26, 2019.
Initial release: 2015
Director: S. Craig Zahler
Do you think David Arquette, when he first started acting, ever could have predicted that he’d have not one, but two small roles in two separate westerns with themes of cannibalism, about 15 years apart? Because that’s exactly what happened.
Coming out the same year as The Hateful Eight and The Revenant, Bone Tomahawk flew under the radar compared to those two films — odd, given that Kurt Russell was also in Tarantino’s film — yet has all the makings of a cult film. In an immediate hint that this is a different kind of film, Bone Tomahawk opens with a man getting his throat slit by bandits out in the Texas wilderness sometime in the 1890s. (Expect a lot of slit throats in this movie, plus sliced limbs and other grievous injuries.)
The story begins with two drifters making a living murdering camped travelers in their sleep. They stumble upon a sinister burial ground, soon before they’re attacked. The action then moves forward 11 days to the small town of bright hope, home of a sulking cowboy with a broken leg. When one of the drifters (Arquette) wanders into town late at night, acting suspiciously, he winds up getting shot in the leg by the sheriff (Russell) who, in lieu of the drunken town doctor, has our cowboy hero’s wife deal with the bullet extraction.
The next day, the drifter, wife, and a deputy are all gone, as are all the horses in a nearby stable, with the young employee of the stable owner left disemboweled inside. Responsible for this heinous crime are, apparently, a pointedly-not-real nameless tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals, described by a Native man as hailing from a desolate region that no tribes go to.
Most of the rest of the film is the sheriff, his elderly backup deputy, a smart-mouthed, gunslinging dandy and our crippled cowboy trooping across the desert on a rescue mission. This is where the writing really carries the movie, because so little else actually happens. That’s not to say that it’s a dull film. Zahler is a master of landscape and wide shots; this is a very visually arresting film, especially in the outdoor sections. The only part of the film the visuals fall flat is the cave scenes — it looks fake, like a Roger Corman set.
The script also really shines in this movie; there’s a realism to the dialogue that just feels natural, and perfectly matched to the time period, and the cast is given the opportunity to give subtle, even masterful performances, especially Russell, who seems made for movies like this. While Russell’s Sheriff Hunt is the stock gruff straight-shooter, his deputy is a delightfully chatty old man, and our one-legged cowboy is a subversion of the manly hero gunslinger (amply parodied in the gun-slinging dandy.) The commentary on stock western characters is obvious.
There’s a scene where two characters discuss a flea circus that had come to town years earlier; out of context it sounds ridiculous, but it’s perfectly positioned, relieving tension after what might be the single most unwatchable death scene since the New French Extremity period. I never cover my eyes — I did for this movie!
Of course, one can’t talk about this film without talking about the “troglodytes.” The film makes a small effort to let the audience know that these aren’t murderous natives we’re used to in films like this, but a complete other, a “poisoned bloodline of inbred cannibals.” This has the effect of making it feel like a period version of The Hills Have Eyes, which nobody is going to use as an indictment against Nevadans, but no matter how much you try and separate these cannibals from “real” Native Americans, it still plays into age-old stereotypes. But if you’re willing to take this token attempt at separation at face value, the “troglodytes” are menacing villains, ghostly and grey-skinned, appearing out of nowhere and back again. Encounters with them invariably turn bloody, and usually without warning. What’s most interesting to me, however, is how short of the Native character’s exposition, no actual Natives embark on this expedition; I feel like the implications of this would be different if one or more Native characters confronted these villains themselves, given the cannibals’ apparent long history of terrorizing local tribes before white people ever showed up.
At two hours and change this film can certainly seem like a long one as our brave but foolhardy band struggle their way through the wilderness, but the sharp script and quality acting keep it afloat while you’re waiting for the bloody third act. It’s like a version of 1956’s The Searchers updated for modern sensibilities, with a nasty horror twist. The Searchers does not stand up to scrutiny now, and to be clear, neither will this film; regardless, this is a smartly directed and acted number with a wicked streak. Pity it feels so dated.