November 30th, 2015


Cutting Bone

Westerns are often fundamentally about survival with little or no assistance, a man and his companions or family alone in treacherous wilderness or against an evil or alien foe. A combination of Horror and Western then seems a natural fit and 2015's Bone Tomahawk demonstrates this perfectly. A story that wisely knows to take its time it gives an effective perspective on being hopelessly vulnerable and trying to fight back at the same time.

The story begins with two bandits played by Sid Haig and David Arquette imprudently disturbing a formation of stones and bones of clear spiritual significance to someone. One of them barely escapes with his life and heads to a little town called Bright Hope where he's confronted by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell).

Russell is very much the John Wayne of this film, exuding deep yet matter of fact canniness, you sense the instincts and experience in the man that make him the natural leader of the small posse that becomes the focus of most of the film.

A Native American man (Zahn McClarnon), in a brief scene featuring a cameo from Sean Young as a domineering wife of the mayor, explains that the strange people who stole into town, killed horses and abducted two people, are not Indians as the white people in the town understand the term. The "troglodytes" are as much an abhorred and dreaded threat to the native people as they are to the colonialists. In this way, the film relocates the threatening Other from old Westerns, where stereotypes of Native Americans are used, to a monstrous fantasy group, more palatable for enlightened sensibilities and also a whole lot scarier.

One of the people who was abducted was Samantha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons), wife of Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), the most motivated member of the posse who comes along despite his wounded leg from before the events of the film. His wife is a doctor and was tending to him before she was abducted. She comes across as essentially a genius saint who nonetheless makes no crucial decisions in the film, one of the less interesting characters. But as essentially a MacGuffin, she doesn't need to be that interesting, just a focus for Arthur as he trudges across the desert.

Rounding out the posse are an elderly, credulous deputy called Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and a wealthy young psychopath named John Brooder (Matthew Fox). Much of the more interesting portions of the film deal with the posse members' contrasting philosophies on how to deal with survival--John sees complications as dangerous and so has put everything in the world into sharp categories, his belief in the racial inferiority of Mexicans and Native Americans shown as borne out of a desire for self-preservation. Chicory isn't as clever as John and perhaps this is why Chicory can afford to maintain gentler sentiments about human beings. The movie rather nicely shows which of the two has the more genuinely practical worldview but it refrains from being as simplistic as John whose insensitive pragmatism is at times useful. Russell's character becomes the embodiment of the human wisdom that has to choose between the two while Arthur becomes an embodiment of deeply felt human need.

It's an effective dichotomy and helped by well constructed action sequences and a climax that is a series of very well conceived threats. The movie makes you feel how necessary it is to come up with survival strategies.