The story of Bone Tomahawk centers around a rescue mission. Four brave souls by the names of Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Arthur O’Dwyer, John Brooder, and back up deputy Chicory set out into the harsh wilderness. They hope to save Arthur’s wife Samantha and Deputy Nick from the clutches of a tribe of troglodytes—a clan of cave-dwelling “inbreds who rape and eat their own mothers,” to quote the Professor, a local Native American expert played by Zahn McClarnon.
Bone Tomahawk focuses on the causality of the violence that was rampant on the plains. Too often, the cause of death in the old west stemmed from ignorance and stupidity. A sentiment Ms. O’Dwyer would echo later on in the piece saying, “This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.” The culture clash between European settlers and the Native tribes throughout the generations has soaked America’s history in the blood of both groups’ ancestors. It is a mark that is as permanently ingrained as the stain of slavery into the framework of America.
The troglodytes hunt down a road agent by the name of Purvis (David Arquette), tracking him to the town of Brighthope after he and his cohort Buddy (Sid Haig)—who is gutted for his troubles— trespassed onto sacred lands. This encroachment into the burial grounds is excellent symbolism of westward expansionism onto Native territories. The lack of respect shown by the two men who trounce through sacred grounds is unfortunately indicative of the attitude most settlers had for these sites. Many times, places that held great meaning to the Native peoples of the west were desecrated by settlers who either did not know or care about their significance.
After getting into town, Purvis is promptly shot by Sheriff Hunt after he is spotted burying weapons and acting suspiciously and taken into custody. It is when he is being treated for his wounds by Ms. O’Dwyer—who was only there in place of the absentee Dr. Taylor—when the clan enacts their revenge. After butchering a young stable hand, they take Purvis, Samantha, and the Deputy, absconding with the trio into the vast open range.
They are soon followed by the rescue team which is made up of Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins. To be able to assemble such a strong cast for the posse was no small feat. The star-studded lineup is as much a testament to the story as it is to the casting agent. Zahler’s script would clearly be enticing to anyone that laid eyes on it. A high-quality story is often the cause for the gravitational pull that draws big-name actors to more independent projects.
At the tip of the spear is Kurt Russell’s Sheriff Hunt, an aging lawman whose sense of duty and guilt propel him into the jaws of danger. His performance as Sheriff Hunt adds a lot of credence to the piece, playing the role with a lowkey brilliance. Few have a résumé so steeped in the Western genre as Russell. But the reason he fits so perfectly into this role is that he is no stranger to the horror genre either after his legendary turn as the helicopter pilot R.J MacCready in John Carpenter’s The Thing. It was as if the role of Sheriff Hunt was tailor-made for him and it fits him ever so snugly.
Wilson plays Arthur O’Dwyer. He is excellent as the resilient but hobbled Arthur—a roofing accident having left him with a fractured tibia—who is resolute in his mission despite his injuries. Wilson proves once again that he has an eye for choosing the right horror project to commit to. He has had resounding success in the genre most notably in The Conjuring and Insidious franchises. Wilson’s performances often provide a cornerstone for any movie he is in, and with each outing his talents grow exponentially.
Hunt and Dwyer are reinforced up by the loyal backup Deputy Chicory. The role of Chicory is filled by Richard Jenkins, who puts in an absolutely sublime performance. Jenkins excels as Chicory, and every line of dialogue he has is a masterstroke from the writer S. Craig Zahler. What seem like bumbling idiocies are oftentimes filled with odd wisdom that is tinted with naive innocence. Jenkins steals the show entirely and is the heart of the movie. His wide-eyed eagerness to do good is a stark contrast to his companion’s harsh skepticism.
There is a scene where Chicory converses with Samantha (Lili Simmons) about the validity of a local flea circus that passed through town. The exchange between the two is exquisite; Jenkins and Simmons manage to warm your heart at the same time as breaking it. It is a spectacular interaction and it epitomizes the level of intelligence that went into crafting this script. Zahler never misses a chance to turn little moments on their head and give them an undeniably greater meaning.
Matthew Fox fills out the posse playing the cocksure, Native American-hating gunslinger John Brooder. Ever since his success on the juggernaut that was Lost, Fox seems to have focused his energy on more character-driven supporting roles. His portrayal of the dry, egomaniacal Brooder helps paint the picture of the sources of conflict on plains on many levels.
Brooder talks about his hatred for Native Americans, holding the reason close to his chest until later in the movie. He explains how his family was murdered by Natives and how that became the source of his rage. This is a perfect example of the tit for tat nature of living in 19th century Western America. It was these exchanges that led to the violence proliferating to such a degree that it nearly caused the demise of the Native American population entirely.
Along their journey, we see all the different dangers that accompanied life on the frontier. The party nearly becoming the victims of two strangers in the night at one stage, which, to use Chicory’s words, led to two Mexicans being taught a lesson in manifest destiny by Mr. Brooder. This is another example of just how meticulously constructed the script is.
The encounter with the strangers is soon followed by the posse been ambushed in the night. Mr. Brooder is stabbed in the attack, the struggle with his assailant rousing Arthur who promptly fills the man full of lead. In an instance like this, Zahler gives us an idea of how harsh this kind of life was, sleeping out under the stars with nothing but your wit and weapon to keep you safe. The world that our characters call home is rough, raw, and filled with jagged edges.
When the posse loses their mounts during the ambush, they have to continue the rest of the way on foot. Their trek is reminiscent of the days of Kit Carson as he traveled through 40 miles of enemy territory with the purpose of reaching Marine reinforcements to save his battalion, who were besieged by the advancing Mexican army. Just like Carson on his mission, our protagonists find themselves behind enemy lines surrounded on all sides. Our brave heroes know that defeat and capture will end in a fate worse than death. They carry on with this knowledge, but they truly have no idea of the terrors that await them.
As they traverse the plains, their expedition is backed by a haunting score. The eerieness of the soundtrack keeps you on edge, nudging you closer and closer to your tipping point as the four men near the home of the troglodytes. This is not the only way sound is used to set the tone for Bone Tomahawk. The clan of cannibals is depicted as being so animalistic that they communicate through boney blow holes of sorts that have been inserted in their throats. Every time you hear these sadistic sirens, it chills you to the bone. What follows is always a savage slaughter. These troglodytes are butchers and the plains are their abattoir.
As the story progresses, we get to know the men and we feel that they may stand a good chance of accomplishing their goal. It is only when they first come into contact with the enemy that we see how wholly outmatched they are. The troglodytes hide seamlessly among the rocky landscape, blending in with the use of body paint that perfectly mirrors their surroundings.
Their weaponry is rudimentary but brutally effective. For long-distance fighting, they use bows and arrows, but it is their hand weapons that are the truly unique thing about their repertoire. They use razor-sharp war hatchets crafted from bones that give the film its title. The way they attack is as vicious as it is calculated. This cannibalistic clan is far from stupid—they are highly evolved predatorial killers in their own right.
Even with their primitive weapons, they are only ever defeated by not only the cunning and grit of our protagonists but also by the love in their hearts. Zahler’s villains are nightmarish monsters who epitomize our deepest, darkest fears. To have them be conquered by love was such a strong message. It was Arthur’s love for his wife that enabled him to persevere through all the trials and tribulations. It was Sheriff’s Hunt’s love for his friend Chicory and his wife back in Brighthope that gave him the strength to stay back and get the job done even though he had been the victim of horrific torture.
In the scene before Sheriff Hunt and Chicory say goodbye, Zahler takes one more opportunity to break our hearts. When the Sheriff says to his loyal Deputy, “You say hello to my wife and I’ll say hello to yours,” both the actors and Zahler show so much class. What could have been simple goodbye instead is turned into a perfect encapsulation of these two men’s relationship. That even in death they will still look out for each other. I can’t stress how much Zahler should be commended for filling every corner of this movie with touches of quiet genius.
Bone Tomahawk is half a decade old and has flown criminally under the radar since then. My first viewing of the western horror created and directed by S. Craig Zahler was just after its initial release back in 2015, and I immediately felt enthralled by it. I have gone on to watch it at least twice annually in the intervening years, and each viewing just enamors me more with the story. There is a beauty to its brutality and a complexity masked by its simpleness. The dialogue is every bit as awe-inspiringly magnificent as the violence is grotesquely barbaric. It is a slow-building symphony that ends in a horrifically visceral, magnificently stunning crescendo.