Notes on “Bone Tomahawk”

Fenster writes:

In the past couple of years I don’t think I have enjoyed a movie more than Bone Tomahawk.  But will I respect it in the morning?

Instincts first and reflection later so let’s start with what prompted satisfaction.

Bone Tomahawk is a mash-up, one of those films that happily mixes together not only different genres but also the different tones associated with those genres.  That doesn’t make it good in itself–there’s always the question of artistry to contend with–but I have to say that I have usually taken to little subversions of genre expectations, being somewhat prone to easy boredom.

Going way back to ’63 I thought the mixing of horror and comedy in Corman’s The Raven was wonderful.  I liked that it both honored the form and winked at it at the same time.


Lorre: Hard place to keep clean, huh?

Price: Yes, I very seldom get down here.

And when horror comedy came roaring around again via films like The Howling and the Evil Dead, I was happily in line.  But genre subversions can end up genres-in-themselves.  Horror-comedy is now its own genre, with its own sets of genre expectations.  But these can be subverted too.

Bone Tomahawk takes on the genre mashup from a slightly different angle.  For one, it is not just a horror-comedy but a horror-comedy-western.  But we’ve seen these before.  What really distinguishes Bone Tomahawk is the writing quality, especially the distinctive language the characters use.  From the sound of the dialogue it is as though Ken Burns’s The Civil War is also part of the mashup.  The characters talk like Sullivan Ballou’s last letter:

Sullivan Ballou: I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one.

Kurt Russell: If you move in a hasty manner I will put a bullet in you.

The writer/director, S. Craig Zahler, is new to directing but has some history as a writer, both of screenplays and novels.  Fenster is a fan of the written word in films (see here and here), even when it forces itself to the foreground and threatens to take precedence over the sainted Visual Image.  And while Zahler is no slouch with visuals (for a shoestring budget effort the film is wonderfully composed) the star here is the dialogue.

This period archness can go over the top at times–but for me at least in completely enjoyable ways.  I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit, which is unusual for a film in which a man is pulled up by his legs and brutally hacked into two pieces, like a butchered calf, from the groin on down, or up.

A good deal of the comic relief comes courtesy of Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the “backup deputy” of Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell).  Just when you are thinking the situation calls for concerted plot movement in an expected direction, Chicory just meanders gently off and the audience follows.

Hunt and Chicory determine that a bloody murder of a stable hand and the abduction of one of the town’s women was not the result of an Indian raid but rather an attack of . . . troglodytes . . . living in caves not far away from their town of Bright Hope.


Not an Indian, mind you.  A troglodyte.

They seem to have known nothing of these monstrous cave dwellers but take it as their responsibility to saddle up, Searchers-style, to bring the abducted woman home.  Here’s Chicory at that point.

Chicory: Sheriff?
Sheriff Hunt: Hmm?
Chicory:  Can… Can you read a book
in the bath?
Sheriff Hunt: I don’t understand
what you’re askin’.

Chicory: What I’m asking is,
can you sit in a bathtub
full of hot water
and read a book?

Sheriff Hunt: I’ve never tried.

Chicory:  Well, I hear about people
doing it all the time
but every time I try,
I ruin the book.
I splash water on it or I get
it wet turning the pages.
I’ve even dropped some in.

Sheriff Hunt: Why are you
so determined
to read literature
while takin’ a bath?

Chicory:  Well, it’s just…
It’s just nothing feels better
than sitting in that tub
but it just gets
so dull looking
at your toes all the time.

Sheriff Hunt:  Why don’t you get
a music stand?
Like the kind an orchestra
fellow uses or the choirmaster?

Chicory: Now that’s an idea.

Sheriff Hunt: You put your book on that.
Right next to the tub.
Keep a towel near, so you can…
You can dry your fingers,
you know, before you
turn the pages.

Chicory:  First thing I’m gonna
do when I get back
is I’m gonna go get me
one of those stands.
I bet you Mr. Brooder couldn’t
have thought of that solution.

Sheriff Hunt: Good night, old man.

Chicory:  Good night.

Later, Sheriff Hunt and Chicory track down the abducted woman, Samantha.   But they are captured, stuck in cells in the troglodytes’ cave, where they await what seems like a certain and brutal death.  Chicory mulls:

Chicory :  I’ve been thinking a lot
about that flea circus.
Remember the one that had
come in to Bright Hope?
Sheriff Hunt: I remember.
Chicory: Did you go?
Sherrif Hunt: I wasn’t able to.

Love that–“wasn’t able to.”  It’s important to be considerate and clear, even in a pickle.

 Chicory: I went with Nadine.
It was run by these
two European men.
They were brothers,
possibly identical twins
but one was a foot taller
than the other,
that might disqualify them.
But I don’t remember
their name.
Samantha: The Sandersons.

Chicory: Did you see it?
Samantha:Arthur wanted to go.
Chicory:  Oh, I don’t know what
your opinion is, but
my wife said it
was all a trick.
Even when those brothers gave
us those magnifying glasses
and we saw those fleas pull
that little stagecoach
right into the depot
or roll those cannons,
those tiny little cannons
onto the battlefield.
She said those fleas are dead.
They’re just glued to some
mechanical contraption,
you know,
that moves on its own
like a timepiece
or a windup.
Still, I thought it was
real and I told her,
I said, “Don’t talk so loud.
The performers will hear you.”
Because I don’t know what
kind of hearing fleas have
or if they can sense
kindness in a voice
the way a dog can.
They drink dog’s blood,
so maybe.
I think it was real.
I believe those fleas
were alive and talented.

Samantha : (being kindly) Most flea circuses
employ tricks
but the Sandersons use
real living fleas.

Chicory:  I knew it was authentic!
I just felt it.
Thank you, thank you.


Bone Tomahawk has been compared with The Searchers (or The Searchers meets Alien).  But in its genre mashup quality, its abrupt jumping from comedy to brutal violence, its wordy excursions and its exaggerated, arch linguistic tics it recalls nothing more than Pulp Fiction on first viewing.  I finished watching that earlier film with almost the same sense of exhilaration, the result of the collision of genres and tones as well as the use of highfalutin’ language.

While I never quite shed my affection–if that is the correct word–for Pulp Fiction I have had reason to reconsider Tarantino a lot in the years since.  In retrospect I have given him a good deal of credit for the clever way he assembled the elements needed for his ingenious escapade.  But over time his work has come to feel to me like shtick, and it has gotten very old.  I feel I can see right through his stuff, and the suspension of disbelief I so willingly fell into at the first has been replaced by active distaste and, well, boredom.

I was happily carried away  by the sheer looniness of Bone Tomahawk and will run to anything Zahler does next.  But I wonder whether the next time will be nearly as enchanting, and for the same reason I find Tarantino so tiresome today.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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6 Responses to Notes on “Bone Tomahawk”

  1. JV says:

    I really enjoyed this movie too. The dialogue reminded me a lot of the great HBO series Deadwood. I laughed a few times at the overly verbose phrasing. Kurt Russell was great, as always, playing yet another grizzled crank. I thought he was put to better use here than in Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, playing a very similar character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fenster says:

      I keep meanin’ to view that show. Your good words, being valued in these parts, may well prompt me to undertake a look-see.


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  3. Its a fun little film, with an absolutely brilliant premise. I’d like to see this done on a larger scale sometime (perhaps changing the location to an Andean copper mining colony at the turn of the 20th century, or maybe set in the interior of the Soviet Far East in the 1930s?)


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