by Justin MadoreThe title of Bone Tomahawk should’ve been a warning to me. The name suggests something brutal and animalistic. Instead, I ventured forth naively, expecting the standard western fare of Mexican standoffs with gruff men. However, what is delivered by S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is so much more. Although it takes a little bit of time to get there, Bone Tomahawk lives up to its name and surprises in a truly vicious fashion.
The film starts in a typical manner for a Western film. Kurt Russell returns to the genre as Sheriff Hunt, the rough and tough, no-nonsense lawman of a small town in the American Southwest surrounded by dangerous wilderness. The place is rife with clichéd Western film characters (the town drunk, the stable boy, etc.). When one resident turns up dead with an arrow in his head and the town doctor vanishes, Hunt begins to suspect that something foreboding is on the horizon for the town. After the arrow is identified by a local native as belonging to a tribe of almost inhuman “savages,” Russell’s character announces a rescue mission. Gathering his deputy (Richard Jenkins), the town doctor’s husband (Patrick Wilson) and an experienced killer (Matthew Fox), they set out across the harsh desert to hunt down the doctor’s captors.
Coming in at around 130 minutes, Bone Tomahawk takes its time, but never wastes a moment. It’s a surprisingly lean film. When there isn’t action on screen, it’s because Zahler’s focusing on developing his ensemble of characters, establishing tone or fleshing out the setting. And what a setting it is! The movie is filled with sweeping shots of dusty, lifeless landscapes. There’s a distinct dryness to everything, underscored by the washed out, but beautifully-fitting cinematography. In this colorless world, nearly anything can kill a man. While A Million Ways to Die in the West certainly lampooned that notion, there was definitely truth to it. The American West was a dangerous place, and this is something that’s emphasized again and again with the character’s rudimentary medicine, and the prominent shots of dried animal and human bones alike. Between disease, wild animals and attacks from the natives, our band of heroes is in serious peril from the start. Great performances from the ensemble really sell the sense of danger as well.Bone Tomahawk succeeds as a Western genre film, despite it being a bit formulaic, but the third act does something unprecedented. When the sheriff and company find who took the doctor, it becomes a terrifying, visceral experience. It switches genres, transforming into a full-on horror film. As it turns out, the townspeople were taken by cannibal savages—pale white, ghoulish beings. They’re mute, blunt, motivated by instinct and have no qualms with killing. I won’t spoil anything in particular, but Bone Tomahawk might have the gnarliest kill of the decade. It’s one of the most genuinely disturbing moments I’ve ever seen in a film and one of only a few to elicit a physical response from me. I haven’t felt so sick to my stomach from watching a film since I saw the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan at the age of 11.
While I mention that the movie itself is unsettling for its graphic content, I found something else a bit unsettling. The cast of Bone Tomahawk is mostly white. While that’s not the worst thing in the world, it’s the use of its non-white cast members that makes me a bit uneasy. There’s one black character, and he’s a stable boy who gets his throat cut. There’s one culturally-appropriated Native American, whose only role is to identify other natives as savages. While they certainly are, it’s a bit disturbing to have nearly all the natives in the film be cannibalistic monsters. I don’t believe the film is overtly racist, but the script certainly does not acknowledge the terrible history behind Manifest Destiny and the forced cultural appropriation of the Native Americans. I’m not entirely sure how I feel, so, I suggest you watch it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Bone Tomahawk transcended my modest expectations. As a Western, it’s solid, with a terrific sense a place and a script anchored by a great ensemble. But its real strength lies in its horrifying third act. First time director, S. Craig Zahler proves with Bone Tomahawk that there are still ways to reinvent familiar stories and delivers one of the best genre films of the year.
4 out of 5 stars