AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW
RUNNING TIME: 132 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the 1890s, two drifters, Purvis and Buddy, make a living killing and robbing travellers. Spooked by the sound of approaching horses, they hide in the hills and come across a Native American burial site. Buddy is attacked and killed, but Purvis escapes, arrives in the small town of Bright Hope and buries his stolen belongings, only to be wounded by the sheriff Franklin Hunt. That night, at a stable house, a stable boy is murdered and Hunt awakes to find that his deputy Nick, Purvis, and the foreman Arthur O’ Dwyer’s wife Samantha have disappeared. A local Native American links an arrow to a clan of troglodytes, so Hunt decides to go after them with O’ Dwyer, and his elderly backup deputy Chicory and gunslinger John Brooder decide to join him….
Bone Tomahawk was totally overshadowed by the other long, slow and brutal [and I’m not necessarily using those adjectives negatively] western starring Kurt Russell that came out around the same time, but I have a feeling that Quentin Tarantino would have loved it, and I enjoyed it considerably myself. Vaguely borrowing from The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes but with quite a fresh feel to it, it’s part of that small but interesting subgenre the horror/western, though it’s really two thirds western and one third horror, the horror element not really coming in until the movie is two thirds through, so some horror fans may be disappointed. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if some western fans have been disappointed too, as there’s not much gunplay and a great deal of the film consists of developing character by dialogue, and very gradually building up to the climactic mayhem. It is nonetheless an impressive directorial debut for S. Craig Sahler, especially considering he made it for just $1.8 million. He actually wrote the script back in 2007 and almost filmed it in 2012 with Peter Sarsgaard, Jennifer Carpenter and Timothy Olyphant, but, with no offence to the performers I’ve just mentioned, I’m actually glad he wasn’t able to get it off the ground back then considering the very high quality of most of the acting we have in the film now from a cast who were all willing to significantly lower their fees for the production.
The opening shot is of the face of a man lying on the ground….before has his throat cut. You don’t actually see the deed properly, the horror mostly evoked by horrid sound effects. It has an odd effect, because it suggests that this is going to be quite a vicious film but that it will avoid showing too much…though the latter doesn’t really turn out to be true. The killer, Purvis, goes around killing and robbing with his companion Buddy. Not only are they murderers but they’re also highly ignorant, calling Indians “godless savages” while they are “civilised man”. I so much enjoyed the slightly humorous bickering of these two, the lines superbly delivered by David Arquette and Sid Haig with a real chemistry coming from the two actors, that I was rather disappointed when Buddy is killed, in a brilliantly handled moment where Purvis is in the foreground and you can just make out Buddy in the background having something done to him [did I see his heart being ripped out?] by somebody else. It was at this moment where Sahler had me and I realised I was in the process of watching something very good indeed.
Saying that though, Bone Tomahawk then totally changes as it very slowly introduces its main characters. Even someone like me thought that some moments weren’t really necessary, like a sex scene between Arthur O’ Dwyer and his wife Samantha, and a scene soon after where the former is in bed alone and reads aloud the poem he’d written for the latter but couldn’t actually read it to her. It’s nice, but is the kind of scene that you often see in the deleted scenes section of a DVD or Blu-ray and say to yourself that it’s a decent scene but you can understand why it was cut out. Sahler does have a knack for strong and believable dialogue though, and it’s not too long before a stable boy hears something at night and glimpses a dark figure amongst the horses, before being killed. Some of the characters awake to find some of the others gone, so a group of four sets off to rescue them when it’s surmised that a clan of troglodytes probably did the abducting. I couldn’t quite get from my mind the possibility that Sahler initially wanted to make a western where Native Americans were back to being the bad guys, as in the old days, but that the only way to do this in today’s PC world was to come up with a fictional group of people so no one could take offence. After all, some tribes like the Comanches used to commit atrocities just like the ones in the film and worse.
So our heroic four set off [really sweet scene of Chicory saying goodbye to his dead wife but telling her he’ll be back soon], and we have the first use of music in the film, though instead of the traditional musical attempt at evoking the grandeur of western landscapes we have plaintive strings, the emphasis being on the emotions of the characters and the sadness of the situation. Now about an hour is spent on this journey, the film really taking its time, but there’s some fantastic character interplay and plenty of simmering tension so I certainly wasn’t bored. No-nonsense Sheriff Franklin Hunt is supposedly the leader, but Indian-hating gunfighter John Brooder thinks that he should be in charge as he’s the most intelligent [his reasoning for him being the most intelligent is that the other three either were or are married and “intelligent people don’t get married”]. Chicory backs up Franklin but tends to overdo it and also talks incessantly, while O’ Dwyer has a gammy leg which is getting more and more infectious and he’s eventually reduced to hobbling really far behind them because he can’t keep up, using the time the others sleep to catch up every now and again. Frankly I would have been okay if the film had stayed a western, but it does eventually become full blown horror [and the switch is all the more effective for coming so late] and of a really intense kind too, reminiscent of some of the better cannibal movies of the late 70’s/early 80’s.
There’s a fair bit of gore, including the nastiest scalping I’ve ever seen, and it all seems to be practical effects. Hell, if this was a big studio film, they’d probably even have the troglodytes as CGI-created beings. It’s sad that it seems to be increasingly mainly low budget films which are keeping the old ways of doing things alive, but at least they are doing so. The troglodytes are scary antagonists nonetheless, especially with their bloodcurdling cries, and there are lots of intriguing little details concerning them which are never explained but which leave one thinking, like when the group pass two females who seem to be pregnant, but who have their hands and feet lopped off and tusks jammed into their eyes. It conjures up several really cruel but intriguing ideas and is actually probably more disturbing than the scenes of violence. There’s quite a bit that a sequel could build on, though I hope one doesn’t happen. Even in this often horrifying final section though, there’s time for, for example, Chicory to talk about a flea circus he once saw where he thought the flies were real. Another character’s response to this is, in its own way, one of the sweetest moments I’ve seen in a film this year.
While they do employ a bit of handheld [though never overdone] work, Sahler and his cinematographer Benji Bakshi, for the most part, like to shoot things the old way, with lot of wide shots and the camera sometimes never moving at all. Lili Simmons seems to just be in the film as, dare I say, “window dressing” but everyone else is very good, notably Richard Jenkins, who actually has most of the best lines as Chicory, and Russell, who does some his best acting I’ve ever seen him do towards the end of the film. Honestly, it’s truly superb. This actor was made to be in westerns anyway – he has the right look, manner, you name it- he just belongs in that world. But then the whole film looks and feels quite authentic and never really shows its small budget except for a convenient, though plausible, explanation near the beginning as to why Bright Hope has so few people in it. There’s very little music score in the film and much of it is closer to sound effects, which works just find. Overall Bone Tomahawk, despite some padding in places [as if Sahler couldn’t bear to cut anything], is a very strong piece of work certainly worthy of the praise it’s been generally getting, and this guy, with his Tarantino-esque knack for writing great dialogue, getting strong performances from fine actors to deliver it, irony and black humour, but also with his skill at evoking sheer terror and dread, is now definitely a writer/director to watch.