Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk is perhaps best described as a Western horror story. But is it any good?
Set in the remote frontier town of Bright Hope, the story begins with two criminals desecrating what they presume to be a native American burial ground. As it turns out, it is not a tribal burial ground they have disturbed, instead the dastardly duo have stumbled upon the burial site of a cannibalistic pack of Troglodyte cave dwellers. Unable to talk, the Troglodytes communicate through eerie wolf like howls. As his partner is brutally butchered, the outlaw Purvis, (played by David Arquette) manages to escape. We later observe Purvis through the eyes of Bright Hope’s assistant Deputy Sheriff Chicory (Richard Jenkins) burying something outside the town. Chicory informs Sheriff Franklin Hunt,(excellently played by Kurt Russell),who takes a trip down to the local tavern, The Learned Goat, to interrogate the new arrival.
When Purvis (under the given name Buddy) attempts to run, Sheriff Hunt shoots him in the leg. He then sends for the local nurse Mrs Samantha O’ Dwyer (Lili Simmons) to remove the bullet. Mrs O’ Dwyer has been quite busy of late, attending to her cowboy husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) who broke his leg whilst fixing their roof. Local gunslinger Brooder (Played with aplomb by Matthew Fox) escorts her to the Sheriff’s office. Mrs O’Dwyer is then left in the care of Deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) as she removes the bullet from Purvis. As Brooder returns home he pauses at the sound of howling wolves. When dawn breaks, a local stable hand is found brutally murdered and the Sheriff’s office is found abandoned, the only clue being an oddly decorated arrow. After a brief town meeting Sheriff Hunt, Chicory, the injured Mr O’ Dwyer and Brooder resolve to give chase to the Troglodytes in the faint hope of rescuing the captives alive. From here, the story follows the four men as they take the long and treacherous journey into the remote valley inhabited by the Troglodytes.
The pacing of the journey, and indeed the film is quite slow. If this film was a pure western, that might have proved a fatal flaw, but for a film that relies on its horror elements to pack a punch (And boy do they),I found its pace rather effective at building the tension. By focusing on the men and building them up as lovable (Chicory) honourable (Hunt and O’Dwyer) and dangerous (Brooder),the film really works, as we start to empathise with them and their situation. We already know that our heroes odds of success are slim, and as the journey drags onwards we start to understand just how slim. Zahler excels at building a sense of dread. Ignoring the epic visuals that are a trademark of old western films, Zahler instead creates a claustrophobic atmosphere by keeping the camera firmly on the men and their immediate surroundings. As the film progresses, you just know something bad is going to happen at some point. When that point is reached, that is when the true horror of this tale begins. And I must say there are parts to this film that are truly horrific. Throughout the film, there is graphic content that many viewers will find disturbing. One particular set piece had hardened film critics hiding under coats or simply closing their eyes, (in my case I wish I had joined them). Personally, I will not be surprised to find that particular set piece around the number one spot for horrific scenes in a film for the next decade. Even if you do close your eyes, the sound effects will haunt you for days. To put it simply, this is not a film for those who get bad dreams. Amongst other things, I am not sure I will ever be able to look at a hip flask in quite the same way again.
That given, this film scores quite highly. The Troglodytes are monsters of the very worst kind, creatures from right out of the darker reaches of the mind. The heroes are flawed in their own way but possessing in the virtues of the old west. The last half hour is indeed truly horrific. That said, the reason the film fails to score higher is because of its sometimes disjointed nature. At times it seems like it is trying too hard to top certain horror films. At other times it seems as if the film is trying too hard to be Red Dead Redemption. Some of the dialogue was especially poor and the actions of our heroes at particular points are unbelievably stupid, verging on unrealistic. Tactics? Plan? These concepts seem to be completely alien to our four heroes for most of the film, though that fact is acknowledged later in the film. That said, if you can put up with the slow pace, this is a film that delivers on its claustrophobic and menacing air. But be warned. Some scenes will haunt you for a long time after viewing.