The Western United States, frontier country some time in the nineteenth century, and a party of travellers have just had their throats cut open by two outlaws, Purvis (David Arquette) and the brains of the operation, Buddy (Sid Haig). They are looking for money and valuables, anything they can sell basically, but as they rifle through the belongings of the deceased they are nearly caught out by a gunshot – one of the victims wasn’t dead yet. They finish him off, but Purvis has good ears and hears someone approaching, attracted by the noise and they make good their escape – unluckily for them, into a sacred Indian site. And these are no ordinary Indians, they’re what are termed troglodytes, who love the taste of human flesh…
So it’s a Western, but it’s also a horror movie, got that? Writer S. Craig Zahler had his script around for some years before he had a chance to direct it in what was his debut at the helm of his own film, and in that time he accumulated a growing amount of praise for the potential inherent there. Maybe a little unfortunately it was released about the same time as another violent Western starring Kurt Russell, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, which stole this far more modest production’s thunder to an extent, but many of those who did take a chance on this noted what Russell and his well-known co-stars liked in that screenplay and why presumably they took a pay cut from what they were used to so they could appear in it.
Russell was the Sheriff, Hunt, aptly named as he spent a goodly stretch of the running time hunting three people who disappear from his own station, not because they’ve absconded but because they have been kidnapped by the troglodytes. Don’t go thinking Bone Tomahawk was non-stop action, however, as much of it was given over to listening to the characters talk, with the slightly naive Deputy Chicory, played by Richard Jenkins, often going off on tangents, and dandyish Indian killer Matthew Fox philosophising, all of which added a certain constitution that marked it out as more indie than mainstream. You could argue that Westerns were out of the mainstream by the point this was released anyway, but not so much that most of the audience wouldn’t recognise what Zahler was getting at with his storytelling, more evidence the genre stubbornly refused to ride off into the sunset.
Although, what was Zahler getting at, away from the essential trappings of the Western? This was a very apt film for living in the time it was made, a time when terrorist atrocities were a weekly occurrence from men who were barely understandable by most in their blind fanaticism and thirst for bloodshed. Thus the troglodytes were more than a throwback to the whooping Indians of Westerns of yore, merely present as cannon fodder, savages who were a villainous threat to the white settlers and nothing more, as there was a conscious effort to represent them as something other, impossible to be reasoned with when everything in their brains was geared towards killing you and doing terrible things with your body, either before or after your death, or indeed both. When the gore arrived, it was sudden and often revolting.
Much like that sort of brutality would be in real life should you be unlucky enough to ever encounter it, making for an experience that looked like it hailed from the past, but played out far more contemporary. Patrick Wilson was the man whose wife (Lili Simmons, a shade too modern for the role, which was perhaps deliberate considering the themes) was the town doctor, abducted with the other deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and the recently arrested and shot Purvis, here bringing out the other motif that nobody here was operating at their full potential thanks to physical injury, not even the troglodytes eventually. There was a lot of damage, to the body and the mind, happening and no matter how stoic Hunt is about doing the right thing, the fact remained it was not thinking of the consequences of everyone’s actions that got them into this trouble in the first place. Wilson spent the whole film with a broken leg, hobbling or dragging himself around, underlining just how damn gruelling life could be, especially when there are people out there who want to kill you, and they’re not thinking their behaviour through either. It’s films like this that make you treasure the rational. Music (stark violins) by Jeff Herriot and the director.