There is a certain allure to the old west. The idea of life on the edge of civilization, where sometimes the only justice to be found comes from your own gun. In films the western started out as an idealized vision. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys black. There were criminals and heroes and little if anything in-between. That vision changed over time as American-made westerns like The Ox-Bow Incident came to the big screen. However, the real change came with the introduction of the ‘spaghetti westerns’ with their dirty, gritty realism and their embracing of the anti-hero as a character. He may mostly do the right thing, but that doesn’t make him a good man. Today’s western cinema, like other genres, has become more complex and realistic in its portrayals. That said, the genre has rarely crossed over into the world of horror. Writer/Director S. Craig Zahler’s horror-western Bone Tomahawk is a film that crosses that boundary.
Bone Tomahawk opens with a brutal murder. Two drifters, Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (Sid Haig), have murdered some travelers in their sleep and are rifling through the dead men’s belongings. They hear approaching horses and flee into a canyon to hide. They appear to have escaped the approaching horsemen, but now they face a new danger. The path they are following is lined with the bones and skulls of animals and men. It leads to a Native American burial site, only it’s not like anything they’ve ever seen. They here a strange howling-whistle and a suddenly Buddy is shot in the chest with a bone tipped arrow and killed. Purvis flees.
Eleven days later, a bedraggled and desperate Purvis arrives in the small town of Bright Hope. He buries his stolen goods just outside of town before entering and then heads to The Learned Goat, the local saloon.
Chicory (Richard Jenkins), backup deputy, spots him burying his stuff outside of town and reports the suspicious behavior to Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell). Hunt and Chicory confront Purvis in the saloon and the man denies any wrongdoing. When asked about what he buried, Purvis tries to escape. Instead Hunt shoots him in the leg and arrests him.
Hunt sends John Brooder (Matthew Fox) to get the town's doctor. The doctor is drunk so Brooder goes to the doctor’s assistant Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons). She’s been at home caring for her husband, foreman Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) who has a recently broken leg. Brooder calls on the couple and Samantha agrees to go. Brooder escorts her to the jail to treat Purvis's wound. It is late so the group leaves Samantha with Purvis and the other deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) and everyone else returns home.
The problem is that though Purvis has run for 11 days from the natives whose burial grounds he disturbed, they have relentlessly followed. They enter the town, kill the stable boy and steal six horses. Again, they announce their presence with an eerie howling/whistle.
The next morning, Sheriff Hunt discovers the murdered stable hand and then finds the jail empty. Aa single bone-tipped arrow sticks in the wall. Mrs. O’Dwyer’s medical bag is still in the jail cell, so Hunt knows she, deputy Nick, and Purvis have been taken by ‘Indians’. He calls for a local Native American man, "the Professor", (Zahn McClarnon) who examines the arrow and links it to what he calls a troglodyte clan. They live in a remote part of the mountains about 3 or 4 days hard ride from the town. He warns the sheriff that these are true savages that other Native American clans shun for their abhorrent practices including cannibalism and inbreeding.
Hunt knows his responsibility to Mrs. O’Dwyer and his own deputy, so he plans to ride out. However, few from the town will join him because of the Professor’s dire warnings. Arthur, despite his broken leg, will not be dissuaded from going. He is joined by Brooder, who has experience “killing Indians” and deputy Chicory.
Now the small posse is ready to ride out and hopefully save Mrs. O’Dwyer and Nick from the cannibals. Only this journey will be bring them face-to-face with a true terror the likes of which they have never seen.
S, Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is something rare in that it is an excellent western, but also a very satisfying horror film. Usually when these two genres are mixed, the result tends to be aimed more for comedic effect then horror. Bone Tomahawk, on the other hand, takes its time and develops an intense story reminiscent of The Searchers as the four men endure many seemingly insurmountable trials on their journey to save the others. However, when they do reach the troglodytes, the film seamlessly shifts into something akin to The Hills Have Eyes as it becomes an intense horror movie.
Zahler’s choices in casting must be commended as the first-rate cast delivers amazing and believable performances across the board. Particularly worth noting though is Patrick Wilson as Arthur, the desperate husband who will do anything to save the woman he loves. Russell also shines as the veteran lawman who is tough and no-nonsense. Zahler’s dialogue is top-notch and adds a richness to the characters as they interact, that makes the film more realistic and at the same time, more fanciful.
Though Bone Tomahawk works as a great western, it may not find all fans of the genre as receptive to it. This is due to the horror elements of movie. As the film nears its climactic confrontation, the shift to intense and graphically violent horror is fast and brutal. Horror fans will not be disappointed, but that same strength is why traditional western film fans may be turned off by the movie at this point. If you can handle the violence though, the film is well worth watching.
So if you have a stomach for some scenes of intense gore and violence, and want to see a fantastic western, check out S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. It’s a genre-blending feature that deserves a look.