By: Cole Henry
Bushy beards, southern drawls, musings about life and the wilderness, revolvers, rugged men on horseback, the damsel in distress, and the hero hell bent on saving her. Those are tropes of the western genre, and S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 film, Bone Tomahawk embraces those tropes willingly. These tropes are used to lure the viewer into a sense of comfort in the film so that when the radical tone shift occurs it is all the more shocking, repulsive, and downright fun. This is a film that loves to fuck with the viewer any chance it gets, and that is why it is such a fun film to watch. In order to fully dive into how Bone Tomahawk plays with and subverts genre I will have to spoil key moments/twists in the film, and for that I am sorry. Yet, if you haven’t watched this movie yet then that is your problem and not mine. Just watch it!
The film opens with two would be robbers murdering and stealing from a group of settlers in some unnamed wilderness. This is the first moment in which the viewer may think they are in for an atypical western as the opening features some of the grossest sound effects I have heard in a while when a man’s throat gets thrashed with a dull blade. What is weird about this scene is one, how graphically jarring it is, and how it is played for humor! The two robbers’ banter with one another is quite funny, and the viewer follows them as they leave the scene of the murders they committed. After some time they find themselves in a clearing occupied by weird rock formations, an awful sound is heard, an hour kills one of the robbers, the viewer gets a glimpse at what seems to be a Native American, and then the film cuts to the title. The viewer is left confused and shocked at the, what seems to be, in media res opening of the film. Yet, Zahler draws the viewer back into the comfort of the western genre as we are introduced to the sleepy western town of Bright Hope (oh the irony), its dusty saloon, and our key main characters. There is Kurt Russell as the uber serious sheriff, Franklin Hunt, Matthew Fox as the enigmatic Native American killer, John Brooder, Richard Jenkins as the cooky widower, Deputy Chicory, Patrick Wilson as the every man, Arthur O’ Dwyer, and Lili Simmons as Arthur’s wife/damsel in distress, Samantha O’ Dwyer. All of these characters embrace their stereotypes and they are all acted quite well. You’d think that a group of stereotypical characters would be boring to watch yet the script is so dense and rich that every time a character speaks it is intriguing, feels real, is often humorous, and usually fueled by powerful emotion(s). Time passes, Arthur’s wife is kidnapped by the natives we got a glimpse at in the film’s opening, and the plot is officially set in motion. Sheriff Hunt, Deputy Chicory, John Brooder, and Arthur O’ Dwyer embark on a rescue mission whilst also hoping to wipe out the hostile natives that, through well placed exposition, the viewer learns that they are called Troglodytes, are very territorial cave dwellers, are inbred, and implied to be cannibals. The viewer begins to paint an image of the Troglodytes in his/her mind, and that feeling of unease begins to creep back into the viewer’s mind. Thanks to the film’s deliberately slow pacing the viewer forgets about the end goal of the journey as the journey itself winds on and on. We learn more about each character during the journey to where the Troglodytes are through engaging dialogue, some (very little) action, and through each character’s different body language. For example, we learn that John Brooder is cold and remorseless as he shoots two unarmed men dead in the veil of night, and yet he has an emotional core when we see him tear up as he is forced to put his horse down. The storytelling on display is brilliant in that it feels natural, and it fits the western genre quite well. Over time, the viewer forgets about the idea of the Troglodytes as they are treated to what feels like a more rugged and raw version of the classic western posse adventure film, The Searchers (1956). Bone Tomahawk wears the guise of a classic western yet at its true core it is a scathing black comedy and gut turning cannibal horror film.
The film is a black comedy because it has such a wicked, dry, sardonic sense of humor. Zahler’s script finds comedy in the most morbid ways, and yet there is plenty of juvenile comedy on display thanks to Richard Jenkin’s character, Deputy Chicory, whom he plays with brilliant indifference. He is the film’s comedic relief in that he is just a goofy old man along for the ride yet as the film goes on the viewer learns of his tortured past, and how kind he really is. He just wants to be helpful yet he rarely knows how to be, and in that he is possibly the film’s most tragic character. Using him as the comedic relief just shows how dark and sort of impersonal the film’s sense of humor really is. It makes the film engaging in that the viewer does not know if he/she should be laughing or not. For example, before Brooder dies he offers a morbidly sarcastic one liner with some of his final breaths. It makes the viewer feel uncomfortable to laugh, and in that the comedic payoff is all the more successful. The comedy on display lightens the mundane tone of the film early on, and works to contrast and bewilder the viewer even more as the film gets horrifying yet comedic elements are still being used. The film would not be the same without the dark humor because that is what keeps the viewer uneasy, and somehow also helps to reel them back in as the viewer wants to turn away from the screen as the horror elements are introduced head on.
Finally, the horror elements on display in the final act of this film are jarring, repulsive, and utterly brilliant. Once the posse searching for O’ Dwyer’s encounters the Troglodytes the film finally explodes into a full on cannibalistic horror film in the vein of the infamous Italian cannibal film, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). The makeup effects of the Troglodytes is incredibly scary! Their dust ridden skin from living in caves makes them standout in the drab environment of the valley in which they live, and they have tusks growing out of their faces along with a hole in their throat that emits a spine chilling call thanks to generations of inbreeding. What makes them all the more scary is just how much brute force they display. For example, the scene in which a man is scalped, fed his scalp, stripped naked, and then slowly split and pulled in half from the groin just shows how strong and animalistic these beings are. Thanks to incredible sound design and special effects that scene will forever make this film infamous among both western fans and horror thrill seekers alike. The film only shows the cannibalistic nature of the Troglodytes on screen once as we see one gnawing on a human leg, and leaving the rest to the viewer’s imagination which makes it all the more horrifying. The final act relies on tension and dread rather than jump scares, and that is what makes the final act all the more scary because the dread is palpable. We have grown to love and care for the characters in peril, and we just know that they probably won’t make it out alive. Most characters in this film do in fact die, and it is never quick or pretty.Yet, in the end the damsel in distress is saved, and the Troglodytes meet their own violent ends.
The idea of a horror western is so novel and a breath of fresh air in the world of modern film, and it makes one wonder how this film was even financed! It is great that it was though because it shows that with a quality script, a vivid imagination, and a love of one’s art that any film can find a financial sanctuary. We may never see a film quite like this again and S. Craig Zahler deserves all the praise he has gotten for Bone Tomahawk because, due to the subverting of genre in the film, will never be forgotten. In due time this film will reach a cult status and probably studied, as it should be, in film classes for years to come. Thanks for reading. Bone Tomahawk is currently free to stream on Amazon Prime so watch it!