Bone Tomahawk: an underrated horror

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(C) RLJ Entertainment
(C) RLJ Entertainment
Image: RLJ Entertainment

What was the last film that properly terrified you? For me, it was Bone Tomahawk, specifically the the third act. It is utterly nerve-wracking in the way few horror films manage — which is all the more impressive considering that, for the majority of the film, it doesn’t really feel like a horror film at all.

The directorial debut of screenwriter, author, cinematographer and musician S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk is a strange beast of a film. It contains the kind of stomach-churning gore that would typically mark a film as pure midnight movie fodder, yet for its first three-quarters it unfolds as a pure Western of the old-fashioned, slow-burning variant; the kind of sumptuous, earthy picture Howard Hawks or John Ford might be proud to call their own. It is a bracing, clever, superbly acted and wholly satisfying piece that deserved a much bigger audience than it got, and probably the smartest film to ever feature a hot flask getting shoved into an open wound. If you’re looking for a horror film this Halloween, you could scarcely do better.

The plot is simple enough. One night in the frontier town of Bright Hope, town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer, jailed drifter Purvis, and sheriff’s deputy Nick go missing, while a stable boy is murdered. After a local Native American tracker deduces that the kidnappings are the work of a tribe of cannibalistic cave-dwelling savages known as the Troglodytes, a posse – Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), his Deputy “Chicory” Kory (Richard Jenkins), Samantha’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and slippery educated gentleman John Brooder (Matthew Fox) – ride out into the wilderness to try and save the captives. Suffice to say, what they find is gruesome, but the film takes its time getting to its deadly destination.

The spectres of Henry Hathaway and Cormac McCarthy loom large, while cinematographer Benjamin Bakshi crafts lyrical images of the wide frontier that belie the film’s modest budget (just $1.8 million). There are no cutaways to the Troglodytes stalking in the dark or their victims suffering in cages, Zahler instead opting to stay with his central quartet as they, like Ethan Edwards and his band of gunslingers in The Searchers, venture into the unknown armed solely with an unwavering, and soon challenged, belief in Manifest Destiny. And quite frankly there’s no other way we’d have it – these characters are effortlessly enjoyable to spend time with. The film is an acting treat, with all four leads savouring Zahler’s rich dialogue in classy performances. Russell is as good as he’s ever been, gruff and authoritative but also capable of selling vulnerability and desperation when the situation calls for it, while the ever-dependable, ever-underrated Patrick Wilson has a nice line in downtrodden decency and low-key intensity. Matthew Fox, meanwhile, is a revelation with a scene-stealing (but, crucially, never show-stealing) against-type performance that sees him ooze glib sliminess and capricious menace from every smirk as a ruthlessly pragmatic gun-for-hire. Perhaps the best of all is Richard Jenkins, whose endearingly rambling and sincerely good-hearted performance would have likely picked up awards attention in a higher-profile film of a more respectable genre. It is down to the work of these fine performers that we remain utterly engrossed with the film even through its leisurely paced middle act, and that we genuinely care when things inevitably go south.

Indeed, once the dreaded Troglodytes finally take centre stage with a blood-chilling whistle, Bone Tomahawk kicks in with a vengeance and rarely looks back. The final act is stunningly, uncompromisingly violent, and Zahler shoots the bloodshed unflinchingly and makes it sting, ensuring that even as the carnage arguably goes over-the-top (most notably in a sequence that you’ll be talking of in hushed tones for weeks afterwards) it never becomes schlock. It’s nightmarish and harrowing bruised-forearm cinema, as Roger Ebert would have it, but it only works as well as it does because of those character-driven, subdued first two acts. This is exactly how horror fiction is meant to work: with a gradual build-up that heightens our anticipation of the climactic shocks and lets us get to know the central players so that we’re absolutely rooting for them to make it out once they come face-to-face with evil.

But even beneath its pulse-quickening thrills, the film is alive with ideas. Its collision of genres is no mere From Dusk Till Dawn-style switcheroo, but rather a canny recognition that both the western and the horror film are ultimately rooted in the same primal fear – that of the other and untameable. Bone Tomahawk pulls off its transition so well because it knows that Stagecoach and Cannibal Holocaust are both treatises on civilisation’s fear of that which it cannot control. Zahler also casts a sardonic eye over the archetypal Western’s dehumanisation of Native Americans and trigger-happy machismo, never outright critiquing but rather subtly undermining the chauvinistic assumptions on which that most American of genres is built. There’s a rich vein of wry humour running throughout as well, particularly in Russell and Jenkins’ interactions, that gives the film some added nuance and suggest that there’s a certain knowing absurdism to proceedings.

Both an unapologetic grindhouse thrill-ride and a genuinely adult film with rounded characters and potent subtext, Bone Tomahawk is an exemplary horror film that, if you can stomach it, is worth seeking out. And I will buy a drink for anyone I see dressed as a Troglodyte come October 31.

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