Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is a mashup of the western and horror genres. A cowboys and Indians flick where the Indians play into all of the colonialist fears of degenerate, pagan savages. In the not too distant past of America, Native Americans were massacred in the name of Manifest Destiny. When not being slaughtered, American Indians were marginalized, forced to live thousands of miles away from their lands and even subjected to biological weaponry. But none of that matters in Bone Tomahawk. We are given just enough information to justify the violent murder of many members of a degenerate, unnamed tribe. It also helps that the Indians get in a couple of good hits themselves before it is all over.
It all starts after a drifter (David Arquette) comes into the town of Bright Hope wearing another man’s clothes. Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) wounds the stranger in the leg as he tries to run when his answers to the sheriff’s question do not satisfy the sheriff. Samantha (Lili Simmons), wife of laid-up, cattle driver Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and a trained nurse, is called to the jail to tend to the wounded stranger. That night, suspicious whistling noises are heard. The next day, horses are missing, a stable boy is found dead and disemboweled, and the jail is empty. The stranger, Samantha, and the town’s deputy have all disappeared. After such a grisly abduction in the small town; the sheriff, O’Dwyer, the back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and John Brooder (Matthew Fox) are on the hunt for the raiding party and in a race to save those that have been taken.
In fact, most of Bone Tomahawk is a rather uneventful pursuit of the brutal troglodytic cave-dwellers. The Native American guide actually uses the word, “troglodyte”, which was almost enough to make me an instant fan of the film, almost. The fact that the guide refuses to go anywhere near the valley where this tribe lives should be enough of a warning to the men to stay away. But, “there’s a woman needs saving”, as the saying goes. During this pursuit, we are treated to the interactions between the men. The characters are nuanced enough but I felt that, if the film has a weakness, it is this lull in the action. In many horrors there is a slow burn as tension mounts but this interlude feels unrelated to the rest of the story and serves only to further define the characters.
Russell turns in, as always, a solid performance as the wise, practical sheriff. I also enjoyed Patrick Wilson’s character and feel that Wilson brought a necessary nuance to someone who otherwise could appear one-note and whiny. Perhaps my favorite performance in the film is that of Jenkin’s Chicory. Chicory is a bit simple but reliable and strongly devoted to the sheriff. He also can not go for more than five minutes without sharing his thoughts out loud. The characters are uncomplicated but well-defined. Director Zahler also wrote the script. His writing shows in some slightly self-indulgent exposition and soliloquies that work remarkably well to establish the characters and set the tone of the film. The characters are detailed but, in my opinion, not terribly complex.
When the action occurs it is brutal and quick, coming out of nowhere in an appropriately horror-like fashion. By way of warning, there is a particularly gory execution scene and a torture scene as well. As a film, it is entertaining enough. I do not think it is going to be terribly memorable or become a cult favorite (like a similar western horror Ravenous). However, it has an interesting story, decent performances and some good action. Clocking in at 133 brisk minutes, Bone Tomahawk is a solid and fun first endeavour by S. Craig Zehler.