09 November 2015

What Makes Bone Tomahawk So Unsettling?: Review

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler
Full cast and crew at IMDb

This solid little Western–horror hybrid is practically science-fiction, turning the wild American west into alien terrain populated by inconceivable monsters. The plot is simple: two men and a woman are taken from a peaceful town by a mysterious native, and a quartet of white men take after him. As such, the movie resurrects hoary tropes of the savage Injun, though it clearly states that the Indians don’t even consider this particular tribe, which has no name because its members cannot speak, to be Indian. They’re something else, something unspeakable. 

So, don’t expect a movie that deals well, or at all really, with the problems of American history; it tries to riggle out of them. Expect instead satisfying storytelling, a movie that takes its time, allowing for digressions and jokes and slow tempos, all of which intensify the audience’s relationships to the characters, making the gruesome climax more affecting: you care about whether these men live or die. It helps too that they’re played by excellent actors: Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox, the latter of which is the weakest of the bunch, because his voice is too high-pitched for the masculine gravitas of the Wild West, which this movie reinforces through Russell’s gruff tone and magnificent facial hair.

But it’s not these men that stand out, really. The movie reminded me of the end of Valhalla Rising, re-creating the mystery and terror of being a colonizer facing the indigenous population, of the inherent violence of the situation. I don't mean that the settlers deserve our sympathy and the Native Americans don't, just that it’s exciting to witness the real fear the former lived with: the vulnerability of desert-black nights or horseless days, the way a modest wound could kill you, the sudden unexpected thwap of an arrow or ghostly arrival of a tomahawk-bearing enemy or a stranger in your camp. 

But it's not even such tension that stands out, either. What has stayed with me from Bone Tomahawk is the men/monsters writer-director(-novelist-musician) Zahler has created: chalky bodies, howling like T-Rexes, cutting humans in half (starting at the crotch) with the title implement and feasting on the flesh—igniting the imagination with its horrors of the wild continent. These cannibals are terrifying—all the more so because they live not in outer space but in the United States.