Editors’ Note: Anthony Perconti lives and works in the hinterlands of New Jersey with his wife and kids. He enjoys well-crafted and engaging stories across a variety of genres and mediums. His articles have appeared in several online venues and can be found on Twitter at @AnthonyPerconti.
As in many things in relation to pop culture, I am a late arrival to the party in viewing S. Craig Zahler 2015 film, Bone Tomahawk. [Editor’s Note: I’d never even heard of it until this review. You better believe I went right out and watched it!] Zahler is credited as the movie’s screenwriter along with directing the film (his directorial debut in fact). This feature has garnered lots of positive praise from critics and moviegoers alike. Billed as a Western Horror mash-up, the film’s plot revolves around a small band of men on a rescue mission to save some townsfolk from indigenous captivity. The potential for horror creeps in when the band learns early on in the film that the kidnappers do not belong to any known existing Native American tribe. The Tribe with No Name are cave dwellers, referred to in the film as Troglodytes, who have no discernible language and prey on other human beings as a source of food. The Troglodytes make their home in a remote area on the Western Range known as The Valley of the Starving Men. In a race against time, the rescue party hastily departs the town of Bright Hope in hot pursuit of the captives.
The party is composed of four men. Sheriff Franklin Hunt, played by a grizzled Kurt Russell, is the group leader. Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), the husband of one of the kidnap victims, Samantha, is the second member of the party, with a broken leg slowing him down. The third man in the party is John Brooder (Matthew Fox) a pompous, dandified Indian killer who once courted Samantha and was rebuffed Rounding out the group is Chicory, an elderly back-up deputy, played by the scene stealing Richard Jenkins. Hunt’s deputy, Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), is among the kidnapped, along with a slimy prisoner that was in his custody, Purvis, played by David Arquette in a brief appearance. The third victim is the previously mentioned Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), Bright Hope’s assistant physician. In addition to this wonderful ensemble, there are two memorable cameos: one is by cult film regular, Sid Haig, playing Arquette’s crime partner, Buddy. [Spoiler alert] He is dispatched prior to the opening credits roll. The other is by Sean Young, who portrays Mrs. Porter, the wife of the henpecked mayor of Bright Hope.
Although marketed as a Horror Western, the more extreme elements of Bone Tomahawk are relegated to the final act of the film. The majority of the plot focuses on the four rescuers as they make their way to The Valley of Starving Men. At one point, their mounts are stolen, forcing the group to travel on foot through treacherous terrain. This is especially difficult for Arthur, given the fact that he has one functioning leg. It is during this journey that character interactions take center stage, providing insight into individual motivations. The relationship between Hunt and his associate Chicory (and I would go so far as to say Chicory’s interactions with everyone he engages with), adds a great deal of warmth and charm to this film. Even Brooder, the least likable member of the party, gets the curtain drawn back on his character, revealing some of the reasons why he acts the way he does. The film doesn’t condone the character’s comments or actions; it just provides the audience as to some clues why.
The horrific aspects of the film reveal themselves when the rescuers are taken prisoner in the Troglodyte cave complex. One scene in particular is pretty gruesome. A a prisoner is slaughtered and halved like a farm animal at the butcher’s. Although gruesome, the gore present in Bone Tomahawk doesn’t aspire to the levels of a Fulci or Deodato. It is pointed and direct; there is more gore scene-for-scene in Romero’s Day of the Dead than there is in Tomahawk. The Troglodytes’ features are chalk pale, sporting various body modifications, including grafted-on tusks and laryngeal bone pipes that emit nerve jarring howls, serving as the main Trogolodyte form of communication. Their weapons consist of bows and arrows, war clubs, and tomahawks, all shaped from repurposed bones: functionally utilitarian. I would contend that Bone Tomahawk has more in common with John Ford’s The Searchers than it does with any number of low budget splatter-fests. It forgoes the cheap jump scares and commits itself to sturdy character development at a gradual pace, with an eventual, slow burn payoff near the conclusion. Zahler has written two other works in the Western genre; the novels, Wraiths of the Broken Land and A Congregation of Jackals. I have yet to purchase and read them, but if these books are comparable in quality to Bone Tomahawk (as I suspect they will be), several hours of sleep per night will be lost in getting through them.
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