Western Wednesday: Bone Tomahawk

one of the rare trailers that’s light on the spoilers… it’s still better to avoid it, though

I honestly don’t think there’s been a better year for movies in my lifetime. Who would have predicted we’d get a Mad Max film that wasn’t just a routine reboot? A space film that makes up for the disappointment of Interstellar? A promising Star Wars sequel?

And it’s not just the movies that have already been released. Three or four serious contenders for Best Picture are all releasing on Christmas. Even more unbelievable: two of them are westerns.

I doubt 2015 is the year westerns make their triumphant return to popularity, but it won’t be because Bone Tomahawk sucked. Keeping in line with other past-their-prime westerns such as Open Range, the 3:10 to Yuma remake, and The Proposition, Bone Tomahawk borrows more from John Ford’s day than Sergio Leone’s. It just treads a lot more lightly on its depiction of American Indians than Ford ever did.

For a film to show up so quietly on VOD, it’s way better than you would expect. Twenty years ago it would have been advertised extensively before dominating the box office for at least a week or two. And nothing about the film’s quality suggests it was made by a first-time director. There’s a scene so graphic and shocking towards the end, people would have talked about it the way they talked about the big reveal in The Crying Game or the leg-cross in Basic Instinct, if only the film had a wider release.

Bone Tomahawk begins with a couple of outlaws, played by Sig Haig and David Arquette, who make their living looting and murdering campers in the middle of their sleep. After slitting the throats of their latest victims, they stumble onto the sacred burial ground of the “trogdolytes,” a small sect of inbred cannibals. After the cannibals kill Haig, Arquette flees to a nearby town in which Kurt Russell’s character, the sheriff, shoots him in the leg. That’s kind of the sheriff’s thing: shooting bad guys in the leg.

Samantha (Lili Simmons) is a townswoman who’s recruited to operate on the outlaw’s leg in the jail cell. Meanwhile her husband, Arthur (Patrick Wilson), stays at home recuperating from a leg injury of his own. Samantha asks John Brooder (Mathew Fox) to escort her to the jail; Brooder’s a bit of a blowhard who brags about how many Indians he’s shot, a rather large figure that includes men, women, and children. Brooder doesn’t quite see eye to eye with many of the characters, least of all the town’s likable but kind of slow “back-up deputy,” played by Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is almost unrecognizable in his elderly man costume and makeup. In most movies, this character wouldn’t have survived the first third of the film, but Bone Tomahawk cares about its players too much to make them suffer predictable deaths, even though it ultimately puts them through hell.

When the sheriff wakes up the following morning, he discovers the outlaw, Samantha, and the real deputy have been kidnapped in the middle of the night. There’s also the dead body of a stable groom, whose wounds lead them to figure out who’s responsible for the kidnapping. The sheriff, the back-up deputy, Brooder, and Arthur then set out to search for the cannibals’ cavern. It’s in the dangerous open spaces of the wild west that the movie stumbles into horror territory.

I found myself saying “oh shit” under my breath an awful lot.

I can probably count the number of films that legitimately terrified me on one hand. Bone Tomahawk is one of them. A lot of movies, especially westerns, coddle the audience to the point that even a child can reliably predict who’ll end up dead and who’ll be left standing by the end. With Bone Tomahawk you realize, early on, that absolutely no one’s safe. I’m not saying it’s just a suspension of disbelief thing. I’m saying that when the hero of the film starts out with an injured leg, you realize this isn’t the paradigmatic western where differences can be solved by a shootout.

That shocking scene I mentioned earlier is something so sick and unbelievably twisted, Bone Tomahawk will likely be one of those movies more people discover the older it gets. I just can’t imagine a movie this incendiary can come and go so peacefully. See it today and recommend it to everyone you know so that it can obtain its inevitable cult status sooner rather than later.

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