The horror-western is a largely underused subgenre in my opinion. It combines the very American form of cinema and history with the supernatural, or, at least, the uncanny, which matches well with the isolated nature of the Wild West frontier. J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers is perhaps the best example of this sort of filmmaking, and one of my favorites of the past few years. It was that in mind that I entered a viewing of Bone Tomahawk, from writer-director S. Craig Zahler, who is previously known as the writer of Asylum Blackout. It’s a tall order for Zahler, who brings together Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Patrick Wilson and Richard Jenkins as would-be rescuers on the lonesome prairies of the Old West.
The film starts with a bang, as David Arquette and genre stalwart Sid Haig find themselves at the hands of a mysterious tribe of savage American Indians, with Arquette the lone survivor. When he makes his way to the tiny town of Bright Hope (population 268), he finds himself under the watchful eyes of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), and the less-watchful eye of his aged backup deputy Chicory (Jenkins). Upon questioning, Hunt determines the interloper poses a threat and locks him up with a bullet in his leg and must call upon the closest thing to a doctor available to him, Samantha O’Dwyer, wife of Arthur (Wilson), an injured company foreman who watches his wife whisked away to the jail to aid the wounded prisoner. When morning comes, his wife, the prisoner and a deputy have gone missing, a stable boy left disemboweled and horses gone missing.
Thus begins the journey of our four heroes who set out to rescue the abducted citizens of Bright Hope from a group of troglodytes, as described by the local Indian expert. These savages are described to us as something less than men, who have lived in a secluded valley shunned by all other tribes, left to inbreed and consume the flesh of their own and others to survive. It is a common trope in Westerns for the protagonists to set out for rough territory to find someone stolen from them, but it’s always a pleasure when the men setting forth are played by such competent actors and given some delightful dialogue to chew on. Jenkins, in particular, disappears into the role of Chicory, the old man still haunted by the death of his wife, but so cheery, so blindly optimistic, that he never feels like a fool, but rather a man who has seen the worst of life and has chosen to remain innocent of cynicism.
Russell is unsurprisingly good as Hunt, a plain-speaking and decent man. Fox is also quite good as John Brooder, an elegantly-dressed individual with a savage lust to kill any Indian who runs afoul of him. Wilson bears much of the weight of the film as the hobbled husband of the abducted woman, whose determination to find her supersedes his physical ability to make the journey. The film takes its time with this journey to the forbidden valley, allowing the characters to reveal themselves through some sharply-written dialogue. The movie is really at its best when the characters are conversing, though there are some viewers of a less patient disposition that will find these scenes overlong and aimless, though I could have watched another hour of these men on the trail, often at odds, but united for a common purpose.
The final act of the film takes place in the much-discussed valley, and we are treated to some fairly harsh depictions of bodily injury. The greatest problem with the film appears at this point, where the movie becomes less about the characters and more about their dealings with the tribe of troglodytes, who are suitably frightening, if underused. The threat of the tribe is tangible, but doesn’t permeate the film the way I think it ought to. I didn’t feel a growing dread as we grow closer to our heroes’ end goal, which made the culmination of the film ring a bit more hollow than I would have liked. Yes, these monsters (and I mean monsters of a human kind) are terrible, and there are some cringe-worthy moments spent with the troglodytes, but the resolution feels pre-ordained almost as soon as we reach the valley.
And yet, I really enjoyed my time with Bone Tomahawk. Perhaps it’s the lack of horror-Westerns, or good ones, anyway, that makes me give this more of a pass, but I would heartily recommend it for anyone who has previously enjoyed this mash-up of genres, or anyone who delights in the baroque language of the Western. There are some hints at thematic purpose in the film, mostly from Lili Simmons as Samantha, who opines that the problem with Western expansion is that it is in the hands of “idiots.” That said, the movie is more concerned with character than theme, and that’s where it shines. Zahler knows his strength and plays to it, which gives us wonderful moments of discussions of flea circuses and the proper method of reading in a tub. I liked these characters, even Fox’s brutal Brooder, and I would happily watch another film following these characters again. Maybe just a prequel involving Hunt and Chicory, who share a backstory that is hinted at rather than revealed.
At a run time of over two hours, fans of quick-serve horror may grow bored, but the elements of the film outside of the horror trappings are where I found the most pleasure. If you ever thought Tombstone could benefit from more cannibalism, I can’t recommend Bone Tomahawk enough. For others who need their horror blue-tinged and quick-cut, this one may prove a bit too ponderous.