Movie Review: “Bone Tomahawk” – Slow Burning Brutality

Written by Jesse Gelinas November 07, 2015

A deadly omen in Bone TomahawkThe Western-Horror may be the most under-utilized and under-appreciated subgenre in cinema today. At least in the realm of horror itself. The sprawling wilderness of the frontier is just chock full of terrifying possibilities. S Craig Zahler’s latest feature, “Bone Tomahawk” manages to capture the best classic, slow burn of the western-hunt film, with the stark brutality of today’s darkest horrors. With an all-star cast to boot, this little flick is well worth the price of admission.

Around the turn of the 20th century, in the small frontier town of Bright Hope, a scared thief comes seeking shelter. When the Sheriff (Kurt Russell) and his backup deputy (Richard Jenkins) take him into custody with a gunshot, the town nurse (Lili Simmons) is called to the jail to tend the wound. In the night, the thief’s  pursuers roll through town, kidnapping him, the nurse, and another deputy. It then falls to the Sheriff, his backup, the nurse’s injured husband (Patrick Wilson), and a local playboy and boastful “Indian-killer” (Matthew Fox); to hunt down the “Troglodytes,” a cave-dwelling tribe that feast on human flesh.

“They don’t have a name.”

“Bone Tomahawk” dives right into the grim, bloody wild west with the opening scene, as three sleeping strangers have their throats slit by thieves. As the killers make their escape, they run afoul of a mysterious figure near an old burial ground, and one meets a gruesome end. It’s here we get our title card, and the film shows you the kind of violent terror we’re in for. Action shifts over to the quiet town of Bright Hope. It’s your average sleepy town where nothing big ever happens. The kind of town that seems to find its way into these kinds of films regardless of time period. The sets are authentic and the clothes look handmade. Everything has the classic western feel to it, right down to Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp moustache (glorious, by the way).

Sheriff Hunt and backup Deputy Kory in Bone Tomahawk

Character intros are slow and casual, but it helps build the world we’re in. Russell’s dutiful Sheriff Hunt is a western cornerstone, and he slides comfortably into the role that’s he’s grown into in his later years. Patrick Wilson takes a turn as a working cowboy, currently laid up with a broken leg, tended to by his wife (Lili Simmons), the town nurse. Richard Jenkins shines as Hunt’s forgetful “backup deputy.” The man is a true character actor, and adds a wonderful touch of class to everything he’s in, even a gruesome cannibal-driven western. If this were just about any other kind of film, we might be hearing awards buzz for the Hollywood veteran. Surprisingly impressive is Matthew Fox (of “Lost” fame), as the shadowy Brooder. His flirtatious, amoral gunslinger is the wildcard of the posse, and terribly interesting to watch and listen to. It’s a good role for Fox, who hasn’t done much of note since his series ended.

Overall, the cast is impressively natural, and carries a relatively slow film to its bloody conclusion with grace and humility.

“You don’t stand a chance against any number of them.”

Where the film draws its scares is the mysterious tribe the posse is hunting down. The cave-dwelling “Troglodytes” are barely seen for the first two-thirds of the film, though their eerie war cry hangs over a number of scenes. I credit the filmmakers with creating a truly scary villain for “Bone Tomahawk.” Not falling in the same traps as the likes of “Wrong Turn” or “The Hills Have Eyes,” the deadly tribe of monstrous killers are refreshingly creepy and unsettling. And when the film finally gets to the bloodletting, the violence is swift, brutal, and oddly creative. It is hard to shock me with gore, and torture porn is just sensationalized trash. But “Bone Tomahawk” manages to outdo itself in that department without getting gratuitous, or even showing that much actual gore

David Arquette and Sid Haig in Bone Tomahawk

In the end, “Bone Tomahawk” does little to reinvent either of its genres, but it just executes everything so expertly. The acting is top notch, the western grit is present and stark as ever. The gore is sparse and effective, and the terror is lingering and real. This western-horror is well worth a watch, and a welcome addition to your classic western collection.

My Rating: 9/10

Poster for Bone Tomahawk

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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