“Bone Tomahawk” is a freakish mix of two pulpy genres. On one side, it is a gritty modern western film packed with colorful goodies to be enjoyed along its ride. On the other side, it is a gruesome horror flick which often strikes us hard with horrific moments of blood and mutilation. While I winced during some of its most violent moments accompanied with those familiar slashing and crunching sound effects, I appreciated the skills and efforts put onto the screen, and I sort of admired the bloody but engaging mixture of different genre elements in its grisly pot.
After the gut-chilling opening sequence involved with two seedy cutthroats, the movie introduces to us a number of residents living in Bright Hope, a small American frontier town of the late 19th century. Things initially look quiet and peaceful while everybody in the town is going through another usual day, but their peace is shattered when a suspicious man comes into the town at night. As Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) and his old deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins, who did a splendid job of channeling Walter Brennan) suspect, that guy is indeed hiding something, and he is sent to the town jail shortly after confronting Hunt and Chicory at the town saloon.
However, it turns out this is not the end of the situation at all. The guy in question was being chased by a bunch of cannibalistic troglodytes, and they soon strike upon the town during that night. Besides Hunt’s latest prisoner and his another deputy, a young housewife named Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) is also kidnapped because she went to the jail for the prisoner’s medical treatment during that time, and her husband Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) is devastated when he hears this bad news in the next morning. The Professor (Zahn McClarnon, who was one of the memorable supporting characters in the recent season of TV drama “Fargo”), who is probably the only Native American guy in the town, tells Hunt and others that the kidnapped people will be eaten sooner or later once they are taken to these savages’ lair hidden somewhere in a remote desert valley far from the town, and Hunt promptly decides to go to that dangerous place despite enormous risk.
Besides Chicory, Hunt has two other people willing to go along with him. John Brooder (Matthew Fox in a dandy mode not so far from John Carradine’s character in “Stagecoach” (1939)), a slick cad who does not feel any qualm about showing his racist hatred toward Native Americans, joins the posse because he was indirectly responsible for the kidnapping of Mrs. O’Dwyer, and O’Dwyer also volunteers even though this drover guy recently got his left leg broken due to an unfortunate accident. He and others know well that his injury may jeopardize their rescue mission at any point, but he is adamant about joining the posse, and Hunt reluctantly allows O’Dwyer into his group.
The movie takes its time in building its nervous atmosphere further as its four main characters ride across remote wasteland areas. While the cinematographer Benji Bakshi captures the barren beauty of dry landscapes on his camera, the sparse score by Jeff Herriott and the director/writer S. Craig Zahler accentuates the solitary mood encompassing its main characters’ perilous journey, which is always surrounded by the possibility of sudden danger even when they are sleeping during night.
As they get closer to their destination, their situation gets worse than expected, and O’Dwyer’s injured leg inevitably becomes a big serious problem no matter how much he tries to conceal his worsening condition from others. The movie thankfully takes a restrained mode during a number of grueling moments involved with his physical predicaments, and Patrick Wilson’s increasingly weary face effectively conveys to us that excruciating pain which his character has to endure at every difficult step of his.
During its third act unfolded around the troglodytes’ lair, the movie pulls out all the stops for hurling itself into striking moments of extreme violence which are skillfully handled by Zahler and his crew. While the troglodyte characters in the film are no more than cruel, ruthless monsters to be eliminated, they are frightening foes to overwhelm and corner our heroes as depicted with several ghoulish details to notice. I was horrified by how they mercilessly butcher one of their prisoners at one point, I was rather fascinated with how they make their disturbing inhuman howl through an unspeakable mean you should see for yourself, and I was also chilled by one brief shot in their lair, which suggests far more horror behind its already horrible sight.
The movie has the cast consisting of reliable veteran performers. With his tough guy persona honed by the collaborations with John Carpenter, Kurt Russell is always a suitable actor for western films, and he ably commands his scenes as he recently did in “The Hateful Eight” (2015), another notable western film of 2015. While Patrick Wilson is equally good as another center of the movie, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins provide solid supporting turns around Russell and Wilson, and Jenkins is effortless as his seemingly goofy character comes to show more depth than we thought. Lili Simmons has nice intimate scenes with Wilson during the early part of the film, and you may be delighted to notice Sid Haig, David Arquette, Fred Melamed, and Sean Young among the cast members.
While it is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, “Bone Tomahawk” is worthwhile to watch for its mostly successful exercise in genre hybrid. It could be shortened a bit for improving its occasionally lagging pace, and its violence often feels gratuitous, but this is still an admirable debut work which shows the considerable talents behind it. I recommend it with some caution, so please don’t say I did not warn you in advance.