How I Was Wrong about Bone Tomahawk

Written by Michael Schutz

Over the last couple of weeks, I told anyone who would listen that I didn’t like S. Craig Zahler’s new Western/Thriller Bone Tomahawk. “Too slow!” I said. “The characters are too stoic; I didn’t feel a sense of urgency!” I cried. Well, as positive reviews and comments for the film continued to pour in, I decided to give this one another try. I’m glad I did. I was wrong about Bone Tomahawk.

I should begin with compliments to the casting director. My first viewing, I dismissed the ensemble as a simple gathering of relatively big names to help drive ticket sales. That was my first mistake. This is actually a perfect cast. Not every actor can believably pull off the formal, stilted dialog that screenwriters use for Westerns. Everyone in Bone Tomahawk is quite convincing in this regard.

Beyond that, each of our key players is fleshed out with subtleties, quirks, and backstories. And each actor seems tailor-made for their roles.

Kurt Russell, who is no stranger to Westerns (Tombstone, The Hateful Eight), embodies the humorless, no-nonsense sheriff, who is painfully unaware of the ironies and dangers around him.

Patrick Wilson captures the frustrations of a simple man who suddenly finds his machismo ripped away—first with an injury that renders him useless, then as a husband who cannot protect his wife, and then a masterful combination of the two during his journey to reclaim his masculinity and his bride.

Matthew Fox nails the character of Brooder, whose self-assured self-absorption never crosses over into caricature or villainy. Clearly the wealthiest man in the town of Bright Hope, he is also the most competent and an accomplished Indian killer. Which is not a boast, just a fact. It is his summation of his own character that best describes him, “I am far too vain to live as a cripple.” The line is not only true, but illustrates an understanding of his own flaws.

And the terrific character actor Richard Jenkins channels Chicory, the doddering old backup deputy. In lesser hands (both in writing and performance) this character would be the dishonored drunk or the dangerously incompetent bumbler. But Chicory is often the first to notice when things are amiss. His country witticisms (“It’s nine, but it feels like next week.”) and small-town naiveté (the charming story about the flea circus) never get on Sheriff Hunt’s nerves—or the audiences, in my newfound opinion. And Jenkins’ performance is stellar, at one point absent-mindedly working his mouth but finding no words as he stands apart from the action.

In all, what I at first took to be dull stoicism is in fact hefty doses of determination, humor, and hubris in perfect measures. Early scenes with Mr. and Mrs. O’Dwyer and a quiet conversation between Sheriff Hunt and his wife set up the individual stakes of these men. And O’Dwyer’s leg injury is the physical representation of a fatal flaw for an otherwise strong man. It puts our heroes at a disadvantage from the start and substitutes as suspense while the film builds.

Yes, we wait until an hour and nineteen minutes to hear again the cave dwellers chilling “music,” but the hour of character development pays off in the long run. The balance of camaraderie and tension among them plays as genuine and sets the tone for the first half of the movie. I simply must not have paid attention the first time I watched, because a sense of urgency and kinship most definitely forms between the audience and the men on their quest.

And about that quest… The “troglodytes” who kill and kidnap indiscriminately present a threat utterly unlike most foes in either Westerns or thrillers. Their silent, precise attacks are both more real and more terrifying than most foils. The prime example of their cold efficiently comes at an hour and thirty-six minutes, and shook me to the core. And the image of the blind, pregnant troglodyte women will haunt my dreams for a while.

So yes, my friends, I was wrong about Bone Tomahawk. I’m happy I gave it another viewing. Yes, these characters were stoic in their grim determination. But they were so much more. This movie is a thrilling example of character development in film. With only a couple key scenes of brutality, it cements itself into the mind. It’s a movie about honor and horror. It presents us with a unique take on the dichotomy of morality versus survival. Grim, clever, and relentless, this is definitely one to watch.

As always, stay dark, my friends…and shoot first; ask questions later. But make sure you ask those questions.