For a few years now, Keith and I have made a point of running a themed month of horror films during October. We’re kicking off horror season this year with an utterly ghoulish and gory flick that is guaranteed to leave you feeling queasy. Think Eli Roth gets lost in the Wild West, and you’ll be on track to understand S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk.
The opening scene puts you right in the mood, with about as visceral a shot as I’ve ever seen commence a film. Bone Tomahawk is unquestionably violent as all get-out. But part of the mastery is that the jarring opening imbues at least the next half hour or so—which sets out the relatively anodyne sweet-characters-in-a-small-and-quiet-town-going-about-their-business motif—with an eerie foreboding. Following in the tradition of The Birds, the best horror films deny us reprieve from tensions even when we’re sharing otherwise ordinary, mundane, and suspenseless moments.
The horrific tragedy, then is as follows: Kurt Russell plays a grizzled Sheriff Franklin Hunt, who shoots a mysterious and back-talking wanderer named Buddy in the leg. Buddy’s taken to the jail, where Samantha O’Dwyer (played by Lili Simmons) tends to his wound for the evening over her husband Arthur’s (played by Patrick Wilson) protest. By morning, however, Samantha is kidnapped, and Hunt assembles a posse to rescue her. Arthur insists on joining, despite the fact that a recent leg wound leaves him performing sub-par before the excursion even begins; the wound turns gangrenous and he rapidly becomes more of a burden than an asset. Hunt also begrudgingly recruits his creaky Deputy Chicory, played marvelously by Richard Jenkins. Completing the rescue quartet is a psychopathic aristocrat named Brooder, played by Matthew Fox.
If the rescue team’s departure from the town marks the beginning of the second act in a three act play, then the duration of the middle sustains its mood not by playing up the horror of the group that kidnapped Samantha. Instead, much of the film ends up resembling a fairly straightforward rescue adventure. In fact, the slow burn that Zahler cultivates throughout the film makes the culmination in the final act—when we finally meet the kidnappers—something of a surprise.
It turns out the kidnappers are a brutal group of in-bred cannibals who delight in the disfigurement of their prey. There is no shying away from this—whatever reliance on the power of suggestion and intrigue that may have sustained the earlier parts of the film dissipates altogether by the final climax. Everything returns to the same visceral brutality that characterized the opening scene, and it’s full exposure on screen throughout. Be sure you haven’t eaten something that risks returning northward up your oesophagus.
I’ve spoken with friends who objected to the fact that, in trying to straddle two genres that aren’t often placed together (Westerns and horror films), Bone Tomahawk didn’t quite set its mood correctly or weave together the assorted strands. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I thought the pacing and the restrained build-up in tension and atmosphere in this film surpassed anything I’ve seen recently. The dialog is both fresh and authentic on the one hand, while at the same time managing to set the stakes of the film and foment the viewer’s anxiety on the other. The acting is superb, with Jenkins and Russell as the stand-outs (and the only weakness, to my mind, was Arthur’s fairly wooden performance).
One last point deserves mention. I had serious misgivings after first watching Bone Tomahawk because of what appeared to me as clear racist overtones in its representation of the villains. I may not have this right, but I notice that Zahler deliberately has the villains caked in a white mud from head to toe, wearing dress that bears no resemblance to native American garb whatsoever, living in a manner that is insular and isolated as one incestuous family rather than as a people, and with superhuman strength. My inference was that these are paranormal monsters. I may be wrong, and the titular tomahawk makes the association unforgivable. Worse still, it may not even matter whether they’re supposed to be one thing or the other, as it’s objectionable regardless (for example, one thing I frequently point out to my students is that the film Predator was released around the same time as the racist ‘superpredator’ scare, and in that film the alien’s dreadlocks seem rather too coincidental to ignore). Please do let me know your reactions.