One of the many intriguing elements of the western genre is how it deals with civilization. It sits on the bleeding edge between the past and the modern, the place where law is still trying to finds its place, and those outside of it can still be glorified. It’s the violence of the frontier given over to a setting, and when S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk contemplates the nature of the violence inherent in the genre, he comes away with a surprisingly rich film that belies its B-film antagonist. While the gory “other” may be the movie’s hook, the real strength in Bone Tomahawk comes from its cast and their low-key performances that make the frontier feel real, and make the audience question what constitutes civilized society or if such a notion is just a convenient illusion.
A murderous outlaw (David Arquette) finds his way into a small town in the Old West, but the town’s Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) quickly arrests the outlaw after shooting him in the leg. He calls on local medic Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) to pull the bullet out and asks his deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit) to keep watch for the night. However, it turns out the outlaw had previously trespassed on sacred burial ground, so when Franklin returns in the morning, it turns out that the outlaw, Samantha, and Nick are all missing. He learns that cannibalistic troglodytes kidnapped them, and sets out to rescue the captives alongside his aged deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who injured his leg trying to fix their roof.
Zahler carefully tries to avoid a claim of pointing to Native Americans as the kidnappers, to the point where the film’s sole Native American character explains that the troglodytes are savages that are something else entirely. They don’t belong to any tribe, so they shouldn’t be identified as such, which is fine because Bone Tomahawk isn’t interested in settlers taking over Native American land. It’s interested in what settling the frontier means, and what civilization stands for if the stakes are boiled down to survival.
However, the life-and-death survival aspect pushed to the background for large sections of the runtime, and Zahler is content to focus on the dynamic among the four lead actors, which is fine. Bone Tomahawk is a surprisingly languid movie, one where guys chat about getting a music stand so they read by the bathtub. It’s the kind of conversation that colors the characters rather than forwards the plot, a plot one would think would be a race against time, but the stakes are already high before they even ride out. Samantha, Nick, and the outlaw could already be dead, and a colder man than Franklin might say that to try and rescue them is a fool’s errand.
Franklin and his crew are largely unimpeachable. Even Brooder, who by his own admission has killed over a hundred Indians, admits it as a sorrowful fact rather than a boast. So if these men represent civilization, then clearly this is the right direction, especially when faced with the inhuman howls of the troglodytes? Except brutality must be met with brutality, and when we finally reach the violent moments, it’s horrific. Civilization is not a shield that can protect someone from barbarism, and that’s the dark truth underlying the entirety of Bone Tomahawk.
While trying to play up the troglodytes might have made Bone Tomahawk an easier sell, I applaud Zahler for making a fairly straightforward movie. He’s not trying to subvert the western, but instead tell a good story within the confines of the genre. There’s more emphasis placed on the performances and the setting than calling out his unique antagonists. The façade of civilization is far richer material than a band of cannibals out on the frontier.