Bone Tomahawk full movie review - Slow-Burning Western/Horror with Some Great Performances
The western genre is one of my least favorite, surpassing only romantic comedies and Christian faith films.
Quentin Tarantino has played a major role in riling my interest with DJANGO UNCHAINED and THE HATEFUL EIGHT*, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Coen brothers' TRUE GRIT reimagining from 2010. As a result, I've been a little more open to the genre, especially when there's a little something extra to grab my attention. Case in point: BONE TOMAHAWK. It's not something I normally would've gone out of my way to see but this one fell on my radar for a few reasons. For starters, I had just watched Kurt Russell's fantastic performance in HATEFUL EIGHT so I was more than ready to watch him return as yet another gruff gunslinger. Secondly, BONE TOMAHAWK was not just a western but was being touted as a horror film as well. A gruesomely effective one, based on the handful of reviews I'd read. It begins in the small town of Bright Hope, where the busy season has just ended and things have gotten quiet. A drifter arrives into town (David Arquette) one night and we know he's up to no good because the very first scene is he and his partner murdering travelers for their belongings. Sheriff Hunt (Russell) and his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) try to have a word with him and it ends with Hunt putting a bullet in the man's leg. That night, while the doctor's assistant (Lili Simmons) sees to removing the bullet from the jailed brigand, an unseen force swoops in, stealing away in the night with the drifter, the doctor's assistant, and one of Hunt's deputies. Apparently that drifter had crossed a tribe of cannibalistic troglodytes before arriving in Bright Hope and now Hunt must form a posse to set out in hopes of rescuing the captives. Hunt, Chicory, a dapper gunslinger with a hatred for Indians (Matthew Fox), and the assistant's dedicated husband (Patrick Wilson) mount up and head into the wilderness on what everyone agrees to be a suicide mission.
BONE TOMAHAWK is the very definition of a slow burn. The gruesome bits are pretty sparse for the first three quarters of the movie. There is the occasional brutal murder scattered about to keep us on edge. When the troglodytes take their captives, there's a poor stable keeper that gets violently eliminated. And Sid Haig gets a few minutes of screen time before he falls victim to some disembowelment. A lot of the movie is dedicated to the struggle of these four heroes trekking through the unforgiving western landscape and the tribulations they face before even arriving in the troglodytes' territories. The team is already starting at a disadvantage because Arthur (Wilson) is going out with a broken shin. He'd suffered the injury while trying to repair his roof in a storm and, since medicine was still pretty subpar at the time, he's shuffling on with his leg in a splint. But the man is determined to bring his wife home safe and he won't let anyone tell him otherwise. Then there's the tension arising from the mere presence of John Brooder (Fox). Brooder is probably the most experienced member of their posse, having proudly murdered over a hundred Indians in his life. He brings his experience to the group to increase their chances of making it back alive, but his itchy trigger finger and pompous nature rubs his comrades the wrong way. Fox scores one of the more interesting characters with Brooder. He's a man of honor and vanity, and his distaste for Native Americans is revealed in more detail as the journey goes on. Richard Jenkins also stands out as Hunt's back-up deputy. Chicory isn't the smartest man. He's older and often comes across as a simpleton, but he's loyal to a fault and brings medical skills from his time in the war. When Chicory insists on accompanying Hunt on the quest, you immediately worry for him because you know they're wandering into a hellish situation and, aside from Arthur's busted leg, he seems like the weakest link. Russell and Wilson, while also doing stand-up jobs in their own respective roles, pale in comparison to the characters of Brooder and Chicory. Regardless, great performances all around in BONE TOMAHAWK.
Once our posse arrives at our destination, that's when things go horribly awry and the horror element kicks into gear. Their intel in the beginning of the film warns Hunt and his men that these troglodytes are not the sort of Indian tribe they're accustomed to. This is a small clan that broke off from a larger Indian tribe to live on their own and years of incest and cannibalism have turned them into animals. They're warned against going on this mission because the troglodytes are nothing more than killing machines. I love that we don't really see the enemy until this final act because it maintains that extra level of tension with the "unseen monster" element. We get flashes of them here and there, usually in the dark or at a distance. Then the final act brings us right into the middle of their clan so we can witness firsthand their horrible nature. One poor character's fate is just horrifying. Those who have seen the movie will know what I'm referring to and anyone who hasn't is in for a rough few moments. This blending of genres was masterfully done. I'm sure others have toyed with western horror before but BONE TOMAHAWK was my first exposure and I really enjoyed it. When depicted with an air of realism, westerns are already pretty bleak. Add in that unspeakable horror element and it really works well. BONE TOMAHAWK is a big recommend from me.
* I understand Tarantino's films aren't exactly westerns. Their more Southern period pieces but I associate them with westerns for the genre tropes they share.