bone tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk [2015] is a western/thriller/horror hybrid that tells the story of a ragtag team of four men who aim to rescue a few of their fellow townspeople after they are captured by a small tribe of cannibalistic, cave-dwelling Native Americans know as “troglodytes.” Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins, this film marks the directorial debut of novelist/musician/screenwriter S. Craig Zahler.

Something old, something new. As is true with most films of such a well-worn genre, success depends on the use of the genre as a backdrop for something new, or, at least, something especially well-executed. Tomahawk has a little bit of both of these elements; mixing a beautifully-realized version of the Wild West with a tribe of troglodytes who are unlike any portrayal of “savages” in a film that I have ever seen. They don’t speak, their swift attacks come entirely without warning, and they emit an eerie howl as their only means of vocal communication. This gives them an almost supernatural bent, and their extreme brutality makes them the perfect villain.

The witty west. While the ever-present danger of a troglodyte attack maintains a palpable sense of dread throughout the movie, the back-and-forth musings of each of the characters propel the film through its somewhat slow-paced first two-thirds. While the overly good-hearted "Back-Up Deputy" Chicory (Richard Jenkins) serves as the impetus for much of this banter, all four of our heroes have distinct personalities and takes on frontier life. Russell plays Sherriff Hunt as gentle, but not afraid to kick your ass if the situation calls for it. Fox, in one of his best post-Lost roles, plays a womanizing, over-confident alpha male, which just kind of makes sense given his persona, both on and off the screen. He delivers several very humorous lines and his character is probably the cheekiest in the film. The always-likeable Wilson makes O’Dwyer the most sympathetic character in the film as he hobbles through the desert with an increasingly infected leg that is just begging to be amputated. Thankfully, this ragtag crew’s banter, which is undoubtedly the star of the film’s first two-thirds, is just tongue-in-cheek enough to let you know that it’s not taking itself too seriously.

Beware the squeamish. Given that a tribe of cave-dwelling, in-bred cannibals comprise about half of this film’s cast, it shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to say that there is some amount human flesh consumption on display here. Some of it is very grotesque. Grotesque enough to make a grown man’s stomach churn. In the same way, that an amusement park patron exiting a roller coaster might warn those standing in line of an especially steep drop,  I feel obligated as someone who has seen this movie inform potential viewers of an extremely violent scene that comes out of nowhere towards the end of the film. While the scene makes sense and is effective in the film’s context, the magnitude of the violence on display absolutely will disturb some viewers and likely negatively impact their viewing experience. Consider yourself fairly warned.

Small potatoes. As assured an effort as this is from first time director S. Craig Zahler, let it be clear that this is a small movie. The dialogue, while humorous and expertly-delivered, is never all that profound. The western setting is gorgeous but isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before. The violence is perhaps the most signature element of the film, but it is revolutionary mostly for its intensity. This film is not making any Tarantino-esque statements on violence. That said, the film’s smallness will add to its appeal for some, but viewers not already keen on the western genre are none too likely to be won over by this movie.

Well-acted, competently directed, if a bit insanely violent, Bone Tomahawk might be the best western of this decade, even if it lacks enough substance to repeat viewings from any but the most hardcore fans of the genre.