Directed by S. Craig Mahler
Starring: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox
It’s a Western Horror; how often do you hear that combination? Though the list is small, Bone Tomahawk consistently ranks near the top. The cast’s pedigree is superb for a movie that only cost $1.5 million to make, and it’s buzzed about violence and gore stood out at the time of its release for being on par with infamous grindhouse films. It’s currently at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and 72/100 on Metacritic.
I almost watched this in 2015 because, at the time, I was working with a colleague who had an idea for a modern-day western with cannibals. I was going to compare the two, but that project was put on hold, and my colleague moved on to other ideas.
Here in 2022, I was going to make this month Kurt Russell themed (until a certain Marvel movie caught my attention). I wanted to include one of Russell’s more recent roles, and Bone Tomahawk popped up again.
Bright Hope is a small Arizona town that’s currently empty because the cattle drivers are out for the season. All that’s left are drunks and cripples. One such cripple is Arthur O’Dwyer, who went out to fix his house during a storm–even though his wife, Samantha, told him not to. Now he’s missing out on a lucrative foreman gig and has to put up with his wife’s pampering.
Because his wife’s a nurse and the doctor is drunk, Samantha must attend to a mysterious traveller in the jail cell. The sheriff shot the vagabond first, presuming to ask questions later.
That opportunity never comes, though, because kidnappers are hot on the traveller’s trail, capturing him, Samantha, and a young bailiff during the night.
Fearing the town might become a target, the sheriff, his deputy, and a racist (even for his time) bounty hunter set off to bring them back. Arthur insists on coming along, too late realizing that his wife’s pampering wasn’t all that bad.
This dish left a funny aftertaste in my mouth. Upon learning what Bone Tomahawk was trying to feed me, I’m hesitant to recommend it to anyone.
There’s much to love–specifically the chemistry of the cast and the quirkiness of its characters (Richard Jenkins’ deputy is an especial delight). The production design is also absorbing, from the pastel cuteness of Bright Hope to the jagged alienness of the cannibal tribe’s throat amplifier.
At first, my complaints were script related–something a simple rewrite could’ve fixed. The pacing drags in the middle, the genres aren’t blended well, and the cannibal violence is cribbed without purpose from the notorious grindhouse film Cannibal Holocaust (profound… if you can stomach it).
As Bone Tomahawk neared its end, a creeping concern chilled its way up my spine–the racism shown bears no purpose beyond historical “flavor.”
Believe you me, green font, I don’t want to talk about it any more than you do, but I didn’t know about it going in, and I certainly didn’t ask for Bone Tomahawk to chuck it at me.
Traditional Western settings take place in the mid-to-late 1800s. Of course, people of that time had different values and expressions compared to us today. Showing that reality adds verisimilitude and can lead to a thoughtful perspective on historical human failings. To make a point about evil, one has to talk about evil.
Bone Tomahawk, however, only adhered to the second part of that last sentence. Late in the movie, a character reveals that he’s killed over 100 Native Americans because a raiding party killed his family when he was a child. The other characters listen in silence, and the issue’s never mentioned again.
…LIKE THAT MAKES IT OKAY THAT HE KILLED OVER 100 PEOPLE!
That the movie does nothing thematically or narratively with its racism–even the bare minimum of denouncing it–feels like a silent affirmation.
This says nothing of the fictional cannibal tribe. The writer could’ve made the villains starving colonists or rabid outlaws.
As it stands, the film feels like a cool, charming drifter… hiding a terrible secret.
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