Westerns don’t get a lot of love these days, and weird westerns, which combine elements of fantasy, science fiction, or horror with the western setting, have almost always been a rare thing in cinema. That’s not to say they don’t exist, just that there are relatively few of them. Even fewer are worth watching. If you’re into Italian cannibalism movies, then odds are that Bone Tomahawk is one you’ll want to see.
Late one night, a wanderer stumbles into the bar of a small frontier town of Bright Hope. Since he’s suspicious, the local sheriff and his backup deputy accost him, and when he acts out, the sheriff shoots him in the leg and has the doctor’s assistant perform surgery on him in the town jail. What nobody knows is that this wanderer happened to piss off a very small but very nasty group of natives a few days before by tromping through their burial ground. As he’s getting his leg fixed, the natives show up, murder one of the only black guys in town, and then kidnap the wanderer, the deputy, and the doctor’s assistant. As a result, the sheriff, the backup deputy, the assistant’s injured husband, and an educated dandy/genocidal gunman head out in a small posse to try to rescue everyone. None of it goes according to plan, and considerably fewer are able to attempt to make the long trip back home by the end of the movie, but then again, when have I ever shown you a film like this where everyone survives?
Since I mentioned them earlier, I should point out that this movie is pretty much exactly like an Italian cannibal exploitation film from the 1970s, only set in the American West as opposed to some secret section of the Amazon. Those movies were about two things: the hubris of Western “civilization” getting fucked up when encountering the perverse, frightening, and “natural” world, and racism.
What’s Bone Tomahawk about? Yeah… A bunch of white guys go out into unexplored territory to contend with a killer cannibal tribe of Native Americans. Even with the local genocidal Indian killer using all his schemes, they end up ambushed, wounded or killed, and have to watch a guy get bisected the wrong way. Yeah, that’s right, groin first. These folks constantly seem to be focused on lofty subjects about intelligence and education. Hell, the name of the bar in Bright Hope is “The Educated Goat.” Do I really need to spell out how this fits the first theme?
As for the second theme, well, it’s a bunch of white guys hunting down a tribe of killer cannibal Native Americans. Even with the one other Native American character coming in and saying, “Oh no, those guys are different from us and aren’t true ‘Native Americans’ like me,” it’s a Native American tribe. Sure, they do gross things like stick bones in their throats, eat people, and apparently turn their women into quadriplegic baby farms. But they’re still based loosely off a “uncivilized” native people, and hey, those Amazonian cannibal tribes were based off somebody too.
Character-wise, some of the actors do better, or at least feel like they have more to work with. Kurt Russell is, well, Kurt Russell, so he’s fantastic. Richard Jenkins has some of the best lines, and he feels the most real, as if this unusual old man is somehow so unusual for a film as to actually exist. Patrick Wilson is the assistant’s husband who is both heavily religious and suffering from a broken leg, which gives him drive and faith and not much else. Matthew Fox feels like a cartoon character, but he’s also good in a fight, so I suppose I shouldn’t say no to bringing him along, despite his penchant for killing native men, women, and children. These “civilized” men aren’t our best representatives, and perhaps that is why it’s best to send them, because they’re representing some of our best and worst qualities.
Along the way, there’s a great line from the doctor’s assistant about how frontier life is hard because it’s so full of idiots. It’s a wonderful statement, about our hubris, about our society, and about us in general. We’re a bunch of idiots. Sometimes it just takes a movie where a dude gets his groin and body split in twain with a sharpened horse jaw to remind us of that.