Bone Tomahawk is a 2015 horror / western by director S. Craig Zahler. This is Zahler's first real direction credit to speak of, as most of his work has been as a musician. How did he handle the transition? Well he bit off a huge project for one thing: a $1.8 million budget movie with big names like Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, and Lili Simmons that's both a period piece and not afraid of gore. Was he up to the task? Well you'll just have to read on to find out friend. Unless you're worried about spoilers, because those happen below. Check out the trailer and then continue down for our review.
Jack: Bone Tomahawk. Oh yes. It’s time. This was a Jack-picked movie, and frankly, I’m surprised it took me this long to select it. Patrick Wilson? Count me in. Kurt Russell? Yep. Western / Horror? Way the fuck yes. I love westerns. Especially the minimalist cerebral westerns. Did I mention that Jeremiah Johnson is my all time favorite movie? Well . . . it is. So consider it mentioned now. I was excited to see this, okay? And I know that I’ve been ranting. Frankly, I’d appreciate it if you’d ease up off my back about it.
Mark: I agree with 98.9% of those words. The one word out of those 93 you just laid down that is incorrect is “horror,” which makes this a bit of a strange go around for this site. I mean I guess the concept of murderous indigenous peoples is kinda scary, but not exactly “horror movie” scary. I mean murderous nazis trying to become immortal are scary, but Indiana Jones isn’t a horror movie. I will say it has been a solid while since I’ve seen a decent western, so watching one that dances on the edge of horror (or perhaps suspense) made me really want to give this one credit.
Jack: Plus, have you ever heard of a horror western before? I haven’t really. I don’t consider From Dusk ‘Till Dawn a western, and there just isn’t a whole lot filling that space.
Mark: Well yeah I mean there’s Jesse James Meets Frankenstein, Blood River, Curse of the Undead, Living Coffin, Tremors, Black Noon, Grim Prairie Tales, Ravenous, Dead Birds, and Burrowers… but yeah I hear what you mean. You’d think it would be a sub-genre ripe for the picking given the natural sense of isolation and lack of cell phones, but it’s just never really panned out.
Jack: Sure, I guess those technically fit, but I’m talking about a movie that tries to capture the true spirit of both genres. I am unaware of another movie that attempted it unironically. And fuck me if this thing didn’t capture the genuine spirit of great western. It nails it. The desperation. The isolation. The grit. Shit. Have I mentioned that I like westerns?
Mark: Yes. Yes you have. I heard recently that Jeremiah Johnson is your favorite movie. Care to elaborate? Do you like it even more than The Others?
Jack: Before we exclusively go off on tangents, let me fly through the plot to make sure our reader has some hope of staying with us. Ready? Patrick Wilson is a cowboy is recovering from a broken leg. His wife Samantha, played by Lili Simmons, is the town doctor’s assistant, but also just kind of the doctor because ol’ Doc is too sauced all the damn time to do anything about anything. Samantha gets hailed by the sheriff (Kurt Russell) to doctor up a drifter whom he has shot in the leg. While she’s doing the doctoring, she, the drifter, and the deputy sheriff get abducted by a cannibalistic and backwards group of Native Americans to which the movie refers as “troglodytes.” Cue Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, the back-up deputy & comic-relief Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and Matthew Fox, a learned Indian-killin’ womanizer, all grab their horses and embark on the trail of these troglodytes to save their people. There. Did I miss anything?
Mark: You neglected to mention that Brooder (Fox) is left handed. Jack, let me tell you a film secret: left handed characters are frequently portrayed as being weirdos. It’s an interesting literary device that basically leads us to believe that Brooder is… you know… kind of a dick. Freakin’ lefties. You also have the interesting scene where the Trogolodytes’ entire backstory is explained by the local Native American representative whose own tribe has been terrorized by these dudes in the past.
Jack: Hey mofo, I’m the left handed one of the two of us. I’ll handle the south-paw trivia, thank you very much . . . and . . . yeah, what you said. You know, it’s actually pretty interesting how this movie handles the race issue. Because the old west has a . . . less than stellar history of white folk treating Native Americans well. But in this movie their race is irrelevant. The troglodytes aren’t Native Americans, or white, or whatever. They’re race is irrelevant because they’re not a race of people. They’re their own group of terrifying and cannibalistic motherfuckers and they don’t even have a language. The movie is careful to note that the troglodytes are not a tribe of Native Americans, but just fucking monsters. Maybe I’m not sensitive enough to the issue and this wasn’t as well handled as I think, and if that’s the case, I would genuinely like to know your thoughts, but I found it well-handled. Shit. That was all heavy. Mark, quick, say something nonsensical and bring us back to a tone I am equipped to handle.
Mark: I thought it was interesting that the Trogs (I’m calling them that now) were caked in white sand or powdered sugar or something. I couldn’t tell if this was the movie attempting to invert the race thing or not. There are other tribes around the world who have done similar with mud and ash, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re essentially in white-face. Plus, like you alluded to, they communicate via these strange throat whistle coyote sounds that makes them seem even more alien.
Jack: What’s fascinating about this movie is that it is just not a horror movie for the first ⅔ to ¾ of the thing. It’s just a western. Sure, we get some bones breaking and accompanying sound effects from Patrick Wilson’s leg, but that’s nothing new for westerns.
Mark: You are technically correct that the first two acts of the movie are not a horror movie, but that’s basically just because the whole movie is not a horror movie. If I were to point to any one scene that was most horror-ish it would be the initial kidnapping scene where they opt to face-murder a black dude for no reason. That scene was the weirdest of them all because it seemed blatant that they just wanted to fulfill the obligatory “black guy dies at the start” trope while the rest of the film was pretty decent with the race thing. Anyway, you’re right, the first two acts are basically just a good old fashioned horse riding movie.
Jack: As the travellers’ resources dwindle, and Patrick Wilson’s injury gets worse and worse, the movie does a fucking great job of making you feel their hopelessness. Their trip seems interminable and things just keep getting worse. The oppression of everything stacked against them is fucking palpable, and then intercut with gorgeous shots of the west that make you feel super insignificant.
Mark: I’m not sure I really felt the hopelessness. This really honestly just felt like a western to me. I mean yeah Night Owl has a compound fractured leg and their horses get rustled pretty early on, forcing them to walk instead of ride, but isn’t that basically how the West is in movies? Maybe it’s just that Chicory’s joking lightens the mood too well? Alternatively, it could be Sheriff Russel’s cool demeanor of “well that sucks, guess we just keep going then” that doesn’t really sell the hopelessness. Hell, even when Night Owl’s leg goes full Kevin Ware they basically just splint the thing and keep at it.
Jack: When they finally get to the Troglodyte’s lair, things get even worse. Now down one Patrick Wilson who’s hobbling along behind, the group finds itself up against opponents who outmatch them in the best of circumstances, on the opponent's’ home field, with almost no resources. Fuck.
Mark: Let’s not forget the element of surprise, Jack. The Trogs ambush the group, kill Brooder, and capture both Chicory and the Sheriff. Sidenote: “Chicory and the Sheriff” would be a great daytime talk show opposite Ellen. You could probably call this the start of the third act because almost all of the rest of the movie takes place in the belly of the beast of the Trogs. Now that part seemed hopeless.
Jack: For sure man, this is where the horror properly kicks in. In this first fight sequence, I wasn’t sure whether these fuckers were supernatural or not. They make this awful wailing whistle sound to call one-another. When the shot shifts to the perspective of Samantha and the newly captured Sheriff and Chicory from inside their cages, we see one up close. He’s got all different kinds of bones and horns and shit embedded in his head, but lets out a super loud whistle-wail that genuinely gave me chills.
Mark: I can’t say that scene didn’t give me chills, but they weren’t scary chills. It was more along the lines of “interesting sneak peek into how these dudes live” chills. I was unaware that these were a type of chills, but hey I learned something new about myself. I can also say “dudes” there due to a strangely descriptive and overlong burst of exposition from the captured deputy before he is brutally murdered. This is a good time to note that the Trogs are credited as being cannibals, but it’s literally only mentioned in two scenes and never shown on screen. Not that I was clamoring for cannibalism, but it just feels cheap to play the cannibal angle through two different shoe-horned in expositional rants.
Jack: Well first off, there is one scene where one of the Trogs is literally mowing down on the leg meat of one of their captives, so there is full-blown cannibalism. And did you say brutally murdered? Because you should’ve said stripped naked, held upside down, and slowly and repeatedly chopped in half with an eponymous Bone Tomahawk. That would’ve been the more appropriate description.
Mark: Meanwhile, Night Owl has caught back up to the group and haphazardly killed one of the Trogs. When he searches the body he finds that he can remove the dead Trog’s vocal chords and play it like a goddamned ocarina. It was almost exactly like the scene from Jurrasic Park III when they 3D print the velociraptor’s echo chamber. It’s fucking ludicrous.
Jack: Looking back on it objectively, it’s impossible to say that it wasn’t outrageous or bonkers, but the thing is, when it happened in the movie, I was so god damned captivated that I bought it. Hook line and sinker. It fucking worked man. Patrick Wilson then pretty much lures each Trog out, one by one, and fucking annihilates them. He prays for help from God, and then gets so lucky that it made me think the movie might have been trying to do a religious thing.
Mark: Back in the cave, Chicory and the Sheriff have executed a scheme to poison their captors with their remaining tinctures. As recompense, he get’s knocked out and has a burning hot flask shoved into his abdomen. Seems fair to me. Really though, this part is probably the second most brutal scene in the movie.
Jack: I agree with you, and that’s saying something because this movie has more than its fair share of brutal scenes. Eventually, the sheriff, Sam, and Chicory manage to kill the few Trogs still in the cave, and Patrick Wilson manages to fight his way in to save them all. We get some exposition about how there’s three Trogs left, and Patrick Wilson, Sam, and Chicory start the long journey home, leaving the dying sheriff behind with a repeater. As our heroes find the trail home, we hear three gunshots, implying that the sheriff has killed the last three Trogs. Hooray! Except now all they need to worry about is making a trip that was to take five days on horses, but without the horses. Or water. Or guns. Cut to black. Jesus. I suppose it’s possible they make it home, but fuck me it seems unlikely.
Mark: I took it as ending on a hopeful note, and it seems like the cinematographer wants us to as well. The scene is shot from a low angle (making them all seem taller) as they’re walking downhill with a beautiful sunset in the background. Chicory has a knowing look on his face as he tosses the tomahawk aside and it is immediately covered with dirt. I mean they shot it and edited like that for a reason. Seems to pretty strongly imply that the storytellers think their remaining heroes are safe.
Jack: I viewed it more as false hope, but then I’m just an optimist like that. Let’s rate this thing.
For 1, think of how Supernanny would rate the acceptability of temper tantrums:
For 10, think of how Dan Hawkins would rate the importance of Division I football:
Jack: 10 - This is it for me. This is a perfect story. The characters, the pacing, the correct and minimal use of exposition and trusting the viewer: it’s all perfect. This story is classic western and honors the genre, but is still creative and doing new and interesting things. This is how movies should be written.
Mark: 8 - This movie has a really great story. It is absolutely chock-full of western tropes, which might detract from this rating if Westerns weren’t so few and far between. The story has some decent twists and turns, and really only suffers from a few bouts of deus-ex-machina that are required to allow the plot to happen.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Jack: 8 - This is especially impressive given how hard it can be to become immersed in a film set in such a drastically different era. But these folks nailed it. They made the world so rich and full that I had no problem diving the fuck in to the point where the objectively absurd throat-whistle things didn’t take me out of things for a second. There was a part where Matthew Fox didn’t cut his cigar before smoking it, but you can’t get a perfect score in everything right?
Mark: 7 - See also what I said for story. The world of this movie is well constructed with beautiful cinematography and a very well executed script. Where this movie fails is the insane expositional explosion from the deputy before he is summarily eviscerated and the velociraptor echo chamber that Patrick Wilson can magically get to work perfectly despite it being filled with blood.
Jack: 7 - The beginning of the movie has dread about losing loved ones, then loneliness, hopelessness, and setting dread. Mix in some horrific bone breaking that made me squirm, and you’ve got some great stepping stones to the proper horror of the Trogs screaming and coming out of fucking nowhere. This thing scared me.
Mark: 1 - I should note that our scale goes from 1 to 10. This is the lowest score I am able to give. I’ve said before that gore is not automatically a qualification for horror. Sometimes it helps (see Event Horizon as a good example), but only when it’s in service to actual horror and not just gore for gore’s sake. That being said there is nothing scary in this movie. If we start including tense situations in here then stay tuned next week when we review Indiana Jones. That was a joke. We aren’t doing that.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Jack: 8 - The filmmakers here don’t shy away from special effects, do a good job employing practical effects when possible, but still recognize their limitations and don’t overdo it. High marks.
Mark: 8 - Now that I’ve noted that gore doesn’t get you horror points in my book, I will note that it does get pretty solid points for how well the gore actually looks. There’s a few scenes here and there that look incredibly fake, but for the most part this movie looks great as far as costumes and props are considered. I’m sure you’ll talk about it more than I will, Jack, but it also had pretty effective sound editing. There were a lot of Foley artists working on this thing.
Jack: 8 - I fucking liked this movie. This is in my top 2 of horror movies we’ve reviewed on this here crackerjack operation. I’m also excited to watch this thing a few more times, and anticipate it gaining a spot amongst the pantheon of my all-time favorite horror movies. Watch this movie. It’s fucking good.
Mark: 5 - This is tilted downward by a lot to handicap it for not being a horror movie, which it definitively isn’t. I very much enjoyed this movie for the most part. I think it relied too heavily on gore in the two scenes where gore happens, but outside of that it’s a pretty fun return to the old west.