*** out of ****
Quite often, interesting movies fall by the wayside when distributors are unsure of what to do with them. The new film, Bone Tomahawk falls into this camp, as it is tough to categorize when standing between the extremes of two genres: The traditional American western and cannibal horror. It is currently playing on a limited theatrical release and available for digital download on providers like iTunes and Amazon.
Set in the late 1800s, it opens with a shot of a grotesque murder as if to prepare viewers for what’s coming later (though it hardly compares) and then moves to the slow introduction of the simple people in a small Western town. The establishment of the film’s characters has the steady patience and tranquil dialogue one might expect from a John Ford or Howard Hawks film from the fifties. The cast is excellent with Kurt Russell in the lead as the wise town Sherif and Richard Jenkins unrecognizably portrays his dim yet humbly loyal elderly deputy. Patrick Wilson plays a cowboy recovering from a leg injury, while aided by his medically experienced wife, played by Lili Simmons. Matthew Fox works against type as a dandy bachelor with a cold demeanor frequenting the town saloon filled with a few character actor cameos.
Following a disturbing murder at a horse stable, the cowboy’s wife is abducted and the townsfolk congregate determining that she was taken by an unknown tribe of natives. The four described men form a rescue party, with a destination informed by the town’s only Native American member who gravely warns that the arrowhead left behind belongs to a hidden cave dwelling tribe who commit unspeakable acts of savagery.
As the men travel into unfamiliar territory, their determination and morality are often tested. The real trouble begins when the cowboy struggles with a leg that is not getting the rest it needs in order to heal. Despite the movie’s slow paced character building, it takes a sharp traumatizing turn. When the horror hits, it hits relentlessly hard with the reminiscence of horror films I was sorry to have watched. It also borders on a concept as absurd as John Wayne encountering the nightmarish creatures from The Descent.
It’s hard to know what to make of a film that brings back the classic western genre’s demonization of hostile Indians for a contemporary form of filmmaking. It’s also difficult to find an audience for a movie that is too gory for western fans and too meditative for horror fans. This flick is an odd experience, but it feels like a nightmare about unmitigated savagery preying on the hidden savagery of westward expansionists. Through his first film, writer/director S. Craig Zahler has left an impression with something difficult to process but very unforgettable.