More noise than signal

Bone Tomahawk

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Out West, albeit in a rather less conventional genre piece, trouble starts a’brewing when murderous brigands stumble through an old burial ground, desecrating it along the way. After poor old Sid Haig gets his comeuppance, a fleeing David Arquette accidentally leads warriors from a tribe of what is soon revealed to be violent, savage troglodyte cannibals to a quiet little frontier town. I should probably add at this point that this is a much better film than you’d be lead to expect by terms such as “savage troglodyte cannibals” or “David Arquette”.

The tribe, who for want of an official name I shall call The Troggs, abduct Arquette, a deputy Sheriff and Lili Simmons’ Samantha, who had been tending to the gunshot wound Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) bestowed upon David Arquette, presumably for his performance in Ready to Rumble. This understandably leads to the Sheriff rounding up a posse to go after them, consisting of himself, elderly “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), cynical, womanising, injun’-hatin’ Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who’s nursing a badly broken leg but understandably cannot be dissuaded from going.

Against the advice of locals who have heard tales of the viciousness, fearsomeness and vicious ferocity of The Troggs, claiming them to be wild things who make everything kvoovy, the band start tracking them to their home valley encountering the usual hazards of frontier life – wildlife, barely charted terrain, bandits and brigands and the like, with Arthur’s injury continually complicating matters.

Perhaps the most interesting struggle in this section however is internal rather than external, as the varying degrees of animosity between the characters flares and ebbs, backed by a clutch of good, believable character performances. It’s as good a stretch of modern Western as I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s only when our intrepid band catch up with their prospective quarry that things get weird.

In their struggle with The Troggs it really starts to earn its Horror categorisation, with some quite extreme dismemberments and much, much worse going on as it takes a rather more Eli Roth-ian tone, although again nowhere near as bad as the words “Eli Roth” would have you believe. It is, however, a real stylistic whiplash moment, which to an extent provides the shock value it was aiming for but nonetheless doesn’t feel quite right to me. It marked a very sudden suspension of my suspension of disbelief, and even knowingly that it was coming the mood shift was something that refused to sit properly with the rest of the film.

Bone Tomahawk feels like an hour and a half of a decent Western, with the final half hour of The Hills Have Eyes accidentally spliced into it. It’s as weird in practice as that sounds in theory, and so while “Horror Western” is a genre mashup I don’t think I’d seen before and is certainly distinctive, possibly unique, it’s not one that’s an unqualified success – but certainly better than “Sci-fi Western”, as Cowboys & Aliens and Wild Wild West would attest. A wickey wickey wah wah.