“Bone Tomahawk” is a brilliantly crafted genre-blending film about a posse out to rescue townsfolk from a seemingly “Lovecraftian” nightmare.
“Then fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place, for the sounds uttered by the stricken figure that lay stretched out on the limestone had told us the awesome truth. The creature I had killed, the strange beast of the unfathomed cave was, or had at one time been, a man!” – H.P. Lovecraft (The Beast in the Cave)
Bone Tomahawk (2015), directed by S. Craig Zahler and starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, and Lili Simmons, is one hell of a movie. It’s gritty, it’s brutal, it’s tense, and it’s damn good to boot. I’m a big fan of Westerns; True Grit (2010), though technically a revisionist Western, is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Bone Tomahawk — despite what countless horror fans say, what Wikipedia says, what the director says, and the fact that horror legends Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, and Sid Haig are in it — is not a horror movie. It’s a Western with horror elements. Whether that classifies Bone Tomahawk as a horror Western, or a Western horror, or whatever, who knows?
There’s a lot to talk about with Bone Tomahawk, so it’s difficult to know where to start, since almost every aspect of the film is done with expert prose and ability.
What stood out to me first was the writing.
Independent films are usually associated with poor writing, whether it’s stilted and flat or flowery, self-indulgent, and unrealistic. Not Bone Tomahawk.
The film opens on the very brutal slaying of a sleeping cowpoke, his throat slit from one end to the other. Then, the work begins. The two murdering thieves, one of whom is Sid Haig, start to dig through the corpse’s belongings. They talk and amble, complain and snap at one another, the way one does with someone they’ve worked with for a long time.
There is and was a relationship there, unseen to the viewer, and you can feel it. The dialogue feels real; it flows naturally between characters almost effortlessly, the truest sign of a master writer.
Though, not all the credit can go to Zahler. After all, writing the words is one thing, their performance is another. What’s possibly very solid writing is, thus, elevated by a cast of actors I rarely see in such indie productions.
This is, most likely, the most star-studded film I’ve reviewed for this series so far.
A real standout performance was Richard Jenkins, playing the old, strange, but kindhearted Chicory. Jenkins is an actor, like John C. Reilly, who I really only saw in one type of role. Then, like John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers (2018), I saw Jenkins in Shape of Water (2017) and caught his true performance range. Bone Tomahawk cemented for me that Jenkins is more than the dad from Step Brothers (2008) who wanted to be a T-Rex.
His sweet, kindly demeanor in the film, coupled by his undying loyalty to his companions and love for his dead wife, created a character I truly connected with.
Patrick Wilson is no stranger to horror, ever since he landed starring roles in The Conjuring (2013) and Insidious (2010). In Bone Tomahawk, the plight of Arthur O’Dwyer, a foreman with a broken leg, is an emotional one. His wife, Samantha, played by Lili Simmons, was one of those taken in the night by strange men, and he’s not going to let that stand. Arthur’s emotional journey, which is enhanced by Wilson’s conviction and talent, is the center to this dark piece.
Finally, one can’t forget Kurt Russell, starring as the gritty, no-nonsense Sheriff Hunt.
I cannot emphasis how fantastic he is in this role.
Of course, there was little doubt he’d be anything but; Russell’s name is synonymous with brilliant performances from The Fox and the Hound (1981), to The Thing (1982), to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017).
Bone Tomahawk is a film that allows Russell to play the tough guy character he’s best known for, but it doesn’t back him into a corner. The run-time gives him plenty of time to show he’s a man of moral integrity, filled with kindness, honor, and compassion.
While the story features deranged, mutant cannibals, the bulk of its telling is the journey from the town of Bright Hope to the forbidden Valley of the Starving Men. It features Arthur dealing with the possibility of an infection due to his broken leg. The audience watches as the four are approached by two Mexicans, only for John Brooder, played by Matthew Fox, to shoot them dead.
Our heroes are robbed, forced to make the trek to the valley by foot. Zahler takes the Emerson quote, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” quite literally.
This leads me to a possibly disappointing revelation for the cosmic horror fans that are reading this.
When you go on forums like Reddit looking for a cosmic horror suggestion, this movie is usually on the list. But it usually comes with a stipulation: wait until the end. Well, I’m sorry to all those that thought Bone Tomahawk would veer off to the left and we’d see Tsathoggua or some other strange, alien god, because that’s not what happens at all.
If Bone Tomahawk is barely a horror film, it’s certainly not a cosmic horror film. There’s no serious aspect of the unknown, no confrontation of mankind’s unimportance in the universe, no appalling truth discovered in a freakish twist. There’s none of that.
So, I’m putting my foot down and informing all my Cthulhu brothers and sisters out there to not expect anything Lovecraftian, in any form, in Bone Tomahawk.
Still, you desperately need to see Bone Tomahawk. Right now.
The locations are gorgeous, really showing off that Old West look lots of people forget California has. The editing? It’s amazing! The use of absolutely no music until the two most emotionally charged points in the film is a stroke of genius. The effect work is solid, believable, and, yes, very visceral at the end. We haven’t even talked about the look of the film!
Benji Bakshi, Bone Tomahawk’s cinematographer, and his camera/lighting team did a phenomenal job, working with, clearly, a shoe-string budget, outside and on-location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His framing is incredible, with many of his shots reminiscent of the cinematography God, Roger Deakins. Specifically, I’m talking about his use of wide lenses and the deep focus, especially in close-ups, that show off the detail of a room or the majesty of the landscape.
It may not really be a horror movie, especially a cosmic horror movie, but “Bone Tomahawk” is an amazing movie none-the-less, with a terrific plot, elaborate characters, and gorgeous technical prowess.
Stop what you’re doing, fire up Prime Video, and sit through this nearly two-and-a-half-hour Western. I promise you; you won’t be disappointed.