31 Days of Horror 2016: Bone Tomahawk

Well we’re deep into the spooky season with Halloween just a few days away. You’ve watched Friday the 13th and The Exorcist. You were beaten senseless by The Walking Dead’s latest round of audience trolling. Maybe it’s time to mix it up, head off the well-trodden path and get a little weird with your scary. So I give you a few words to roll around in anticipation. Kurt Russell. Western. Cannibal troglodytes. Piqued your curiosity? Then saddle up, hoss. We’re gonna ride and have a jaw about Bone Tomahawk.

Maybe the thought of watching a Western makes you groan in terror. But trust me, Bone Tomahawk is a weird-ass gem that slipped through the cracks last year. With its laconic pace, indelible characters and slow-burn to a payout of gut-churning violence, the film is a brilliant off-beat hybrid. It’s like Jim Jarmusch remade The Searchers, and decided to throw in big chunks of The Descent while he was at it.

Kurt Russell is the sheriff of the small western town Bright Hope, keeping the law with a stern but fair policy of shooting miscreants in the leg. An outlaw wanders into town, and Russell’s Sheriff Hunt sees through him right quick. Little do the townsfolk know the outlaw’s been followed by a disturbing band of Native cannibals for desecrating their sacred grounds. (The movie does an amusing little dance to avoid calling them Indians, their practices so beyond the pale that a Native in town calls them troglodytes.) The troglodytes kidnap not only the outlaw, but also a deputy and the town nurse (the doctor was too drunk to patch up the jailed criminal). The Sheriff pulls together a ragtag posse to go after them, including his befuddled older deputy Chicory (a superb Richard Jenkins), a racist gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and the nurse’s rancher husband (Patrick Wilson). To make things worse, the rancher has a broken leg, from an ill-advised attempt at roof patching. But he’s determined to join in the rescue. And so they set out to save their people from cave-dwelling cannibals.

Director S. Craig Zahler has crafted a rambling odyssey through the brambles that does a left turn into wrenching captivity horror. Much of Bone Tomahawk is dry and wry, savouring the subtle interactions of this motley posse as they suffer setback after setback. Sheriff Hunt’s gruffly affectionate conversations with the tangentially inclined Chicory are a highlight. Matthew Fox renders a stiff but fine Western mercenary, with a host of reasons for the anger coursing beneath his well-manicured surface. And Patrick Wilson’s injured rancher is agonizing and heartfelt, a man unsure if he deserves the woman he’s got, but determined to bring her back.

The film sets its tone of offhand violence creeping up on you unawares from the outset, opening with outlaws struggling to slit the throats of a sleeping encampment of travellers, just to steal their things. The third act brings a visceral conclusion that has to be seen to be believed. If you’ve ever wondered what a scalping looks like, or what a human wishbone might be, well, you won’t be wondering no more, friend. The troglodytes are creepy as hell, tall and foreboding. They’ve even embedded animal bones in their throats to communicate via musical wheezing pipes that they’re going to kill you, in a very bad way.

Bone Tomahawk is unusual and offbeat. That it slipped by largely unnoticed is criminal (Biff Bam Pop’s Less Lee Moore championed it last year). I wouldn’t watch it Halloween night, but if you’re looking for something a little different to sink into this weekend, you could do a lot worse than this droll creeper in the badlands.

Bone Tomahawk is on iTunes. Even better, for Canadians, the movie is just a Netflix away!

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