Today was a day for Netflix roulette. Picking the first, decently rated horror movie out of my queue, I settled in to what promised to be a horror/western featuring Cowboys vs. Cannibals. This film boasts a pretty impressive cast, enough at least to sucker me in for a viewing of this 2015 indie film directed by S Craig Zahler.
Right away, we're treated to a shot of a filthy David Arquette slashing a man's throat with a far too dull knife while the foley guy cracks celery inside of a bowl full of chunky salsa. Him and his compatriot, a guy who looks like Tim Blake Nelson wearing a very ill fitting Tim Blake Nelson costume, are bandits who kill sleeping travellers and steal their junk. Scared off by approaching horses, they run into a desolate valley lined with enough animal skulls to give the moderately intelligent person a few warning lights. Arquette, who has western-style bad teeth for a total of a single scene, gets a little wary when they hit a clearing straight out of Pet Semetary, but Nelson keeps going until he gets an arrow in the neck. Oh wait, that's Captain Spaulding! Damn. Spaulding is torn apart by some out-of-focus black guy (I mean, literally painted black) and Arquette stumbles off, right into the credits.
It's admittedly, a pretty shlocky cold opening, though considering the impressive juggling act the rest of the movie plays with genres, I'll give it a pass.
We reenter at the town of Bright Hope, where we're introduced to the ornery Mr. Dwyer played by Patrick Wilson. He's upset because his wife won't stop clumsily dropping exposition about his broken leg into the middle of conversations, and is stuck around the house.
Later that night at the local saloon, Matthew Fox in a fake looking moustache wanders in and heckles the drunken piano player for a little bit while a man named Chickory, played by a pretty rough-looking Richard Jenkins, comes to the Sheriff to warn him about a mysterious drifter that was spotted burying luggage nearby. Sheriff Hunt, as portrayed by Kurt Russel still wearing his impressive Hateful 8 mutton-stache combo, has a brief sit down with Chickory and the movie's lack of a soundtrack really begins to make itself known. Both characters are quietly sipping chowder in between snatches of discussion and the whole film is a little bogged down by a lack of any kind of music.
They head out, and there is admittedly a pretty entertaining confrontation between the Sheriff and the Drifter (Arquette) that lets Russel show off his swagger before he detains Arquette with a shot to the leg. Wanting to save the suspected bandit for the hangman, Russel sends Fox's character, Mr. Brooder, to go get the town doctor. This mysterious doctor is apparently too drunk at the time, so instead, he grabs Dwyer's wife, who I guess is a nurse/doctor/midwife/good witch or something? Couldn't have stuck that tidbit into one of your information-dumps of a conversation, Mrs. Dwyer?
If this review seems a little dull, it's because long chunks of this movie pass by without much happening, punctuated by the occasional gunshot. I was tempted to actually turn it off and look for something a little faster-paced at this point, when we are treated to a far-too long scene of Patrick Wilson sitting in bed and reading a letter aloud, while his wife operates on Arquette.
Finally I get the sense that SOMETHING is about to happen when the movies first black man stumbles into frame, investigating some strange noises coming out of the stables. Gosh, I wonder how long this guy will last.
It turns out I overestimated, as Buford here lasts about ten seconds before being cut down by an unseen assailant wielding primitive weapons.
The next morning, the bartender shows up at Sheriff Russel's house with word that the stable boy was found slashed to pieces and that the jail is empty. The drifter, Mrs. Dwyer and Deputy Nick are all gone, along with a few horses. The only blatantly obvious clue is a lone arrow sticking out of a pillar, causing them to think it might have been natives.
At a swiftly held town meeting, a resident Native American dashes these rumours after inspecting the arrow. Apparently the film is attempting to make up for the inherent political insensitivity of a bunch of white cowboys hunting down a group of bone-swinging, inbred savages by having an articulate, well dressed Native American explain that his folk do not consider the perpetrators of this act to be kin. He calls them Troglodytes, feral cave cannibals that have evolved separately from the rest of humanity and are more animal than man. This would all be a pretty chilling revelation, but instead calls another issue to light.
There is very little artistry to this film. It may be a budgetary issue, but most shots are static and very wide, letting the actors pull themselves through it on their own. Coupled with the lack of a soundtrack or very even pacing, the film has a pretty limp feeling for a great deal of it's duration, relying on the performances of the cast to keep the audience invested. I know it's a western, which relies on lengthy scenes and minimalistic techniques to convey a sense of desolation and solitude, but the point of long shots in a film is to build a mood or raise tensions (See Sergio Leone). This movie frequently builds to nothing but another long silence.
A posse is quickly assembled to go after the abducted settlers, consisting of the Sheriff, Chickory, Brooder and a very insistent Mr. Dwyer, on his horse with his crutch stowed on his back. The Sheriff shares a touching goodbye with his wife that pretty much assuredly marks him for death and the group sets off, finally with a bit of music to accompany them out of town.
With a destination marked out by the local Native (who refused to come), the posse is on the move. It's a three day ride, and I can only guess that the Troglodytes stole the horses needed for the escape, though they don't seem to have left much of a trail to follow. How exactly were these beast men able to load up and bug out so quickly and covertly, with three presumably struggling captives? They don't seem to have much experience with Western civilization and I would be surprised if they even knew how to use a horse at all.
The first night passes uneventfully, setting up a little tripwire that Brooder has laid around the campsite and making way for another pointless conversation between Chickory and Russel about reading in the bathtub. I sincerely doubt that this will pay off.
I swear, stuff will happen in this movie. Eventually.
The next morning clearly shows that Dwyer is having issues with his leg, and reveals that he had stowed opium from his wife's medical kit in a hip flask to deal with the pain. It's quickly confiscated and we manage to keep going with minimal fuss, though I wish there could be a little conflict beyond the occasional raised voice. This is finally provided the following night, when a pair of Mexican strangers show up on the outskirts of camp, claiming to have been caught before they announced themselves. Fox shoots them both dead without hesitance, out of a mixture of racial prejudice and pretty sensible paranoia.
There's another minor altercation, but again, nothing too forceful. It is a little studious of the concept of frontier morality, and how justified you can be when it comes shooting someone dead on a hunch when one bad call can mean the death of your whole group. Any discussion on the matter is silenced when Brooder proves to have been right. The posse narrowly survives an ambush by the rest of the gang that was trying to scout them earlier, though they lose their horses in the confusion. That's what you get for not even thinking of sleeping in shifts, I suppose.
At this point, when Brooder is forced to put his wounded horse out of her misery, the party has actually started to degrade slightly. By morning's light, they are haggard, reduced to walking on foot and have shed a great deal of their extraneous items. A Heart of Darkness vibe starts to enter this film as the weary protagonists trudge on, and I start to see the point of the slow burn feel of this movie. I really would have benefited from this a little earlier on on the film, but here, the movie begins it's gradual shift from Western to Horror.
Tempers finally flare when Dwyer nearly busts his own leg in half punching Brooder in the face for making a disparaging comment about his wife. At long last, real lasting conflict enters the film when the argument turns from the matter of Mrs. Dwyer's honour to the concern of Mr. Dwyer's freshly injured leg. All of these good actors are finally allowed to be GOOD as they shout each other down and bring amputation back to the table. Finally, Chickory agrees to set the bone as best he can and Dwyer realizes he cannot continue, taking enough Opium to knock himself out. The three continue without him, with the Sheriff agreeing to lay down a trail in case Dwyer comes to and can pursue.
The vulnerability of sleep comes up a lot in this film, from the opening scene, to the frequent ambushes to even an earlier discussion concerning the need for it, as being rendered hazy with exhaustion is just as liable to get you killed out in the wild as any bullet. In general, it paints the picture that sleeping out in the open wilderness is a very bad idea, though the group is in such a hurry that there are very few other options. The characters in this film are wary and smart, so the film often has to handicap them in order to bring about the terrorizing atmosphere that it needs. The group proceed cautiously when they finally come up on the valley that the Troglodytes call home,complete with a bout of droning music to set the scene.
Things go south very quickly, and the minimal cinematic style finally pays off. The speedy, camouflaged Troglodytes silently descend on the trio with unsettingly quiet savagery in broad daylight. Brooder gets beaned in the head and looses a hand to a thrown axe, Chickory gets knocked back, Russel gets an arrow to the arm and they manage to kill both of their attackers. A badly wounded Brooder makes an attempt at a last stand with one of the rifles while Chickory and Russel limp off, but the two are swiftly ambushed and knocked out, while Brooder manages to kill one more Trog before getting a tomahawk to the face.
A Bone Tomahawk! There it is! That title finally makes sense!
The white-painted, bone wearing Troglodytes are pretty scary in their own right, viciously committing grisly acts of violence and primal rituals with mono-minded purpose. An inhuman shriek that one of them gives out to his compatriots in the cave cements them as beyond mere people separated from civilization. They drag the Sheriff and Chickory into the cave system that they populate and swiftly imprison the two alongside a remarkably unscathed Mrs. Dwyer and Deputy Nick, who dies rather slowly and horrifically at the hands of the savages in the same scene after explaining that the Troglodytes followed the drifter all the way to their town. While I will not go into details, Nick's death is extremely disturbing and little is hidden from the audience. It and the earlier fight scene match the very "Plain facts" cinematic style that the film has been painting from the first scene. The horror isn't generated from surroundings, camera work or lighting, but rather the stark truth that this is the situation and these characters are trapped in it.
The three remaining prisoners discuss a plan to poison their captors by tricking them into drinking a hip flask full of opium tincture that Russel still has on him and Mrs. Dwyer, who arguably has the best head of the group on her shoulders, tells them that there are a total of 12 male warriors in the caves, minus the three that the posse killed.
Mr. Dwyer finally comes to, and it's up to the bravest cripple of all to save the day. He makes the days walk to the valley in remarkable time for a man who's leg is hanging on with spit and gauze, before finally collapsing from exhaustion in a shallow ravine, unaware of the danger around him. A stray shot from a duo of would be hunters wakes him up and and he manages to kill them both in a messy, claustrophobic shootout. Inspection of the corpses reveals an odd bony protrusion in their necks, which Dwyer decides to dig out of their throat for some reason. This on the spot, for shits and giggles autopsy proves to be advantageous as it turns out these cave people have evolved bizarre sound-chambers in their throats that allow them to make their inhuman calls to each other. Exactly how many of your siblings do you have to impregnate before that little mutation pops up in the gene pool? Experimentation with the world's most awful ocarina allows Dwyer (Who has been reduced to crawling on all fours) to lure and kill another Trog, and he deduces from the strewn belongings of his compatriots that following them into the same blind valley would be a bad idea, choosing instead to take a way around the back.
Meanwhile inside, the poisoning plan has been discovered when one Trog is knocked out and the other dies from overdose, reducing their total number down to a somewhat manageable 4 and a half. A furious Troglodyte drags the Sheriff out and subjects him to minor disembowelment before attempting to blow his nuts off with his own rifle. Dwyer's intrusion and gunfire buys enough time for a badly wounded sheriff to blindside his would be castrator, getting shot in the process, and decapitate him with his own axe. Damn, are these things sharp! What kind of whetstone-based technology do these cave people have access to? And if we're on the nitpick train, how come these are the first gunshots that anybody in caves has heard? Dwyer has been busting off caps all day!
Finally, Chickory and the reunited Dwyers agree to leave the dying Sheriff Hunt at the caves with a rifle after he promises to kill the last three Troglodytes, to prevent any of them from returning to Bright Hope. Chickory, the last person I'd expect to survive this mess, leads them out, past the only two females of the tribe: A pair of limbless, blinded, heavily pregnant ladies that are kind of par for the course for these awful creatures.
The film ends with the Dwyers and Chickory limping back to civilization, the husband and wife kiss and are reassured that the immediate danger is over when they hear three gunshots echo through the cliffs behind them.
This movie reads a lot like an H.P. Lovecraft story. It has a VERY slow opening and a lot of expository dialogue leading up to the descent into damnation and the unknown that awaits the four hapless envoys of civilization as they lose themselves in the wilderness. When the eventual horrific pay off finally occurs, the film and the audience have more than earned it, and can enjoy the last half hour of chaos with the reassurance that they made the journey. There's even a tribe of proto-human beasts with bizarre mutations, a-la The Creeping Horror. If there's one thing that Bone Tomahawk could have benefited from, it would be a better title. But if there were TWO things it could have benefited from, it would also be an editor. There is a lot of vacant, dead air in this movie and scenes that don't go anywhere in particular. The dialogue is endearing, yes, but sometime around the third of fourth conversation, you really wish someone would just get stabbed. The longer scenes just don't carry enough weight or mystery or urgency about them to keep the audience interested, and I think a good editor could carve a solid half-hour out of this film's run time without losing much.
Bone Tomahawk is worth a watch if you can make it through the first hour or so, though I wouldn't blame you for ditching it in favour of something more well paced.