Streaming Screams: “Bone Tomahawk”

Is it appropriate to classify a movie as “horror” when most of the horror takes place only during the last half hour or so? If not, how would one describe Bone Tomahawk, an almost traditional Western that climaxes at a level of brutality that makes Game of Thrones seem subtle?

Kurt Russell, wearing a spectacular mustache (and one that he evidently kept while filming The Hateful Eight), is Franklin Hunt, sheriff of the small town of Bright Hope. Not long after he arrests a shady drifter (David Arquette), a stable hand is savagely murdered, and one of Hunt’s deputies, the drifter, and a young doctor’s assistant (Lili Simmons) disappear. Hunt learns that the individuals responsible for the murder and kidnapping are a tribe of feral, cave dwelling Native Americans whose behavior is so appalling that other Native Americans will have nothing to do with them. The tribe, referred to as Troglodytes, are fearsome hunters, butchering and eating their human prey and communicating with each other only through eerie, unearthly shrieks, made with crude bone pipes where their vocal cords should be.

Though warned that he’s putting his life at risk, Hunt rounds up a search party that includes himself, the doctor’s assistant’s husband Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson, playing his usual handsome stalwart good guy role), town dandy/deadeye shot John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Hunt’s other deputy, the dim-witted but well-meaning Chicory (Richard Jenkins). Their mission is hindered from the start by O’Dwyer, who is recovering from a badly broken leg, but they set forth anyway, riding across a bleak landscape in search of the missing townspeople, trying to avoid horse thieves, bandits, and other dangers along the way.

Doesn’t really sound like much of a horror movie, does it? Well, hang on, pardner, it gets there eventually. It is true that the vast majority of Bone Tomahawk focuses on our four heroes and their rough ride to the Valley of the Starving Man, as they struggle to compromise with their very different approaches to the mission (Hunt is a traditional lawman, while Brooder prefers to shoot first and not bother with questions later). Being patient rewards you with really great acting, particularly by Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox, and some genuinely funny dialogue, which slightly alleviates the growing tension and sense of dread. Wondering when, not if, O’Dwyer’s injured leg is eventually going to give out provides the tension, while the dread comes by way of what’s going to happen when the search party reaches the valley and finally encounters the Troglodytes, who come literally bearing tomahawks carved out of human bones.

Even if watching over an hour of mustachioed dudes arguing with each other as they travel the dusty trail doesn’t sound like a great time, the payoff comes in a big, horrific way. You know that things are going to come to a bad end, and oh boy, do they ever. The final quarter of Bone Tomahawk is a relentless nightmare of severed limbs, live bisections, exposed organs, beheadings, and a guy being gagged with his own very recently removed scalp. You can close your eyes, but turn the volume down too, because the Foley artist had a lot of fun creating an effectively hellish mix of crunching and squishing sounds.

If you miss old fashioned, practical effects blood and gore, the end sequence alone makes it worth a watch, but the engaging character development and strong acting are surprising bonuses. I had mentioned the great performances of Kurt Russell and Matthew Fox, but the real star of Bone Tomahawk is the ever reliable Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, the hardest working character actor in show business, could have easily played Chicory as one-note comic relief, but even when he’s blathering away about flea circuses or how he can’t figure out a way to read in the bathtub without getting his books wet, he gives the character an innate sense of humanity and melancholy. Though all of the characters, even the shady Brooder, grow on you in a sense, Chicory’s the one you root for the most to make it through to the end. So does he? Well, pardner, you’ll have to rustle this up on your favorite video playback device and see for yerself.

I probably deserve to be killed and eaten for that.

Bone Tomahawk is currently available on Amazon Prime and YouTube

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