The mixture of genres in 2015's Bone Tomahawk earns Cody Hamman's Film Appreciation.
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, who made his feature directorial debut with this film, Bone Tomahawk is a project that appealed to me as soon as I first heard about it in late 2012. This is because it's the sort of genre mash-up that I'm always hoping to see more of: a cross between a Western and a horror movie. There's just something about that mixture of genres that I have always found fascinating, and I'm up for seeing any sort of cowboys vs. monsters and/or madmen story that filmmakers want to float my way.
Another thing that made Bone Tomahawk instantly appealing to me was one of the cast members announced as being attached to it: Kurt Russell. Western and horror elements in a movie starring Kurt Russell? That's a project that has "This is for Cody" stamped all over it.
And Russell is just one of the lead members of an incredible cast that Zahler was able to assemble. His fellow leads in this ensemble are three more of my favorite actors; Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins; and the next actor on the credit list is a young woman who I was seeing for the first time here and who made a very strong impression with her performance, Lili Simmons.
The familiar faces of David Arquette, Sid Haig, James Tolkan, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, Sean Young, and Jamison Newlander, among others, also show up along the way.
Set in the 1890s, Bone Tomahawk starts off with a couple of murderous thieves (Haig and Arquette) going about their business when they make the terrible mistake of deciding to cut through some sort of burial ground where skeletal remains are on full display. Only one of them makes it out of that burial ground alive, the other is eviscerated by a dark figure barely seen.
The survivor makes his way to the small desert town of Bright Hope, where he instantly draws the suspicion of Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell). Hunt wounds the criminal and locks him up, calling in doctor's assistant Samantha O'Dwyer (Simmons) to tend to his injury. Hunt leaves the criminal, Samantha, and a deputy alone at the jail... and by morning those three have disappeared and a local stable boy has been found murdered. Whoever killed his associate tracked that thief to Bright Hope, and now they have kidnapped a couple locals.
A rescue party is assembled, consisting of Hunt; his elderly, somewhat dimwitted back-up deputy Chicory (Jenkins); Samantha's husband Arthur (Wilson), who is determined to be part of the rescue endeavor despite the fact that he's nursing a broken leg; and the stunningly arrogant John Brooder (Fox), a man who has killed many Native Americans in his day - an ugly fact that is chalked up in the plus column for this trip, because a Native American professor played by Wilson's Fargo season 2 co-star Zahn McClarnon says that the abductors are indigenous people, but of a spoiled bloodline. Troglodytes. Barbaric, cannibalistic killers that live in caves on territory that has long been forbidden.
Hunt, Chicory, Arthur, and Brooder set off across the countryside to this forbidden land, and a long stretch of the film focuses on the journey they make. The obstacles they have to overcome, morally ambiguous encounters with other travelers, the interaction between these characters. Allowing the running time to stretch out to 132 minutes may have been a bit self-indulgent on Zahler's part, but the dialogue is so well written, the actors he got to play these parts are so great, and their banter is so entertaining that I can't really fault him for allowing his movie to run long. Bone Tomahawk is dealing with some serious subject matter, but that doesn't stop certain moments from being downright hilarious. Zahler and his cast created some wonderful, memorable characters here, and my favorite exchange among the group involves Brooder's opinion that "Smart men don't get married."
Eventually, the searchers reach the Valley of the Starving Men, the home of the Troglodytes, and this Western descends into full-on horror as these outmatched men take on the tribe of cannibalistic maniacs, who attack with jaw-dropping speed and ferocity.
This movie takes its time getting to the cannibal tribe action, but once that action kicks in it delivers the excitement and violence. As we get a better look at how the Troglodytes operate, Zahler even serves up a shocking moment of gore that would have been right at home in the Italian cannibal movies of the grindhouse era like Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox.
Bone Tomahawk is exactly the sort of movie I want to see more of, a mash-up that perfectly balances its genre elements. Straightforward Western fans are likely to enjoy the set-up and the rescue party's journey, straightforward horror fans are likely to enjoy the pay-off, and viewers like me will love to see how it all blends together. A film like this truly validates my interest in the idea of horror-Westerns, proving that these things go together exceptionally well.
After keeping track of the film's development for a couple years, I first watched Bone Tomahawk for an article I wrote for Arrow in the Head while visiting my Remake Comparison co-writer Priscilla in Brazil. She watched the movie with me, and while I was being wowed by it she was enjoying it, too. And she had a great reaction to that gore scene.
I've only seen this movie a couple times now, but it's one that I will be watching many more times and revisiting often.