The other day, I re-watched Bone Tomahawk for I think the fourth time, and that one just as good as the first if not better. The same weekend I saw the original Django starring Franco Nero, and it impressed me in a similar way despite them not having anything in common beyond being Westerns and noticeably gory.
What is it?
Bone Tomahawk is a story of four men who travel to try to rescue a woman and two men after a group of cannibalistic cavemen who kidnapped them away from a small frontier town. It’s a horror Western, and it works better than it has any right to.
What’s good about it?
It works because the writing is tight and rewards thinking more about it. There’s only four men available for the rescue party because all the rest are gone on a cattle drive. But rather than say this outright or make a big deal of it, you know this is true because a main character who broke his leg is left behind and the town saloon is all but abandoned, too.
A dead body is found in the stables. The character who found him says he went out there because a colt needed its fourth horseshoe put on. An hour and a half later, they know the tracks they’ve found are the ones they’re looking for before because one of the horses is a colt missing a shoe.
That’s clever and holds up to repeated viewings. But the first time through, it also quickly creates a universe that feels whole and real by having lots of frayed ends that don’t pay off beyond making you understand what normal life looks like to these characters who inhabit it.
So you get to see the alcoholic piano player who makes you pay more for the third song than the first two because he gets tired; you see the ineffectual mayor whose wife runs everything about the town. You see how the sheriff and his wife get along in normal times and his concern for her because she’s been sick. That never comes around again except that you feel these are characters with whole lives.
The movie also seems to have made conscious decisions about who it was going to represent and how rather than by oversight.
It’s in the Old West, so characters are racist, including the protagonists. But it’s stressed that these cannibalistic primitives are not Native Americans in contrast with the Comanche professor who is an expert on aboriginal groups; that the anti-Indian and anti-Mexican character is both completely in the wrong in his behavior and bigoted assumptions but not irrationally so; that when a black character is killed without being subjected to the same torture porn that later characters endure, it makes sense within the universe as well as the flow of the film.
Successfully, it avoids using a setting in the past to excuse examples of bigotry or to toss around slurs liberally, something otherwise great shows like Deadwood and Mad Men often did. When the overall theme is the inherent monstrosity and barbarism of humanity, you have to show some of that to comment on it.
What’s not so good about it?
The film is not above the criticism that it’s about a bunch of white protagonists at the exclusion of other groups, but it seems to be an intentional choice considering the sort of trauma the writers plan to put the protagonists through, which is to say there are tradeoffs.
The effect is that there are no non-white people in the entire film, only stock characters and ciphers. The wife who’s captured by the cannibals (referred to in-move as troglodytes), isn’t really a character either, with hopes or wants other than not to be eaten, or characterization other than perfect competence and intelligence. She services the plot and gives the other characters motivation of rescuing her, and ultimately has her best moment when criticizing the trope of men in the West doing stupid things like running off to rescue people without a plan. But again, that’s just being a mouthpiece, not a character.
The filmmakers seem to have made a conscious choice to go deus ex machina with some painkillers making the husband with the broken leg capable of hiking many miles in the sun and for him to have great fortune in gunning down the semi-monstrous troglodytes right when it looks like there’s no hope. The tradeoff here is that the move is less horrendously depressing than it seemed to be indicating it would be, so is almost certainly a more enjoyable experience, but it really isn’t earned. The narrative gods just decided to be nicer than they had been up to that point.
Finally, the end of the movie has a brief scene where two females of the cannibal clan are shown, mutilated by spikes in their eyes and amputated limbs, and with the swollen bellies of obvious pregnancy. While this ties up the narrative question of, ‘Why have we seen only men?’ and ‘How does the group reproduce?’, it seemed gratuitous, especially because the escaping protagonists then just walk slowly past them and continue out. Other than establishing bluntly, in cinematic neon, ‘THESE ARE THE BAD GUYS. DON’T WORRY ABOUT THEM BEING MISUNDERSTOOD OR WHATEVS’, I don’t know what the value of showing it was, especially since it doesn’t help with other natural questions like, ‘Where in the hell are the troglodyte children then?’
How about the characters?
Despite my problems with the wife as a character on her own terms, the movie does an excellent job of establishing the relationship between her and her husband, how they do genuinely care for one another and have a reason to love each other. The dialogue for the entire script is really witty, but their banter as a couple establishes why you should care that she’s been abducted.
The sheriff and his wife appear together only briefly, and mainly more to add emotional weight to the finale. Again, she isn’t really a person, but she helps reveal the sheriff at his most tender before he spends the rest of the film devolving into a barbarian himself. It’s Kurt Russell, so he brings a lot to the performance, but the character doesn’t have much to do.
The gunslinger is really well-written because he walks around being boorish, racist, and even murders two men just because they walked up on a campsite at night, but it’s later revealed that his mother and sister were killed in an Indian raid. And of course, he’s risking his life for someone else’s wife out of a sense of duty. As I said above, he’s not irrationally prejudiced, not cartoonish. There’s a reason why he is the way he is, even if he grew up to perpetuate the same sort of wanton violence that made him hate other people.
But the best character, and the one with all of the best lines, is Chicory, an elderly widower and mostly buffoonish comic relief who is the sweetest person we’re allowed see in the entire movie. The sheriff says if he were about to be killed, he’d like someone to be promising that they’d get revenge on his killers. Chicory, facing hellish torture and dismemberment, just wants to be able to believe that the acrobatic fleas he saw at the traveling carnival were actually well-trained and not glued to something. More than anything, Chicory as comic relief and sidekick keeps the film clinging to the Western genre as it’s sucked into gory horror at the end.
What do you take away with you?
Scalping a man, shoving it into his mouth to muffle him, and splitting him open from his crotch to his stern as part of a cannibalistic ritual is almost certainly the moment you’re going to most strongly associate with the experience of watching Bone Tomahawk.
Closely after that would be Kurt Russell standing up, naked torso bloody and covered in ashy dust so that he looks more like a troglodyte than a representative of civilization. Which is, you know, the point of the entire thing summed up in something GIF’able.
But surprisingly, the action scenes are all really good, largely because they tend to come out of nowhere without any musical clues or blatant build up of tension. The longest action scene, involving rocks and arrows, pistol and rifle shots, and ultimately amputation, comes without any warning, and it’s terrifying because the ragtag band you’re rooting for goes from having a pretty good plan and scouting out an area to absolutely FUBAR in half a second. Some people had a problem with the pacing, but I enjoyed the slower parts with more backdrops and dialogue, and the payoff of it leading up to that moment was worth it.
Does it deserve to exist?
Yeah. It’s well-made technically, it has something to say, and it’s good both while viewing and when ruminating on later.