Best Horror Movies of the Decade: Bone Tomahawk smashes the Old West
All this month, we are counting down the 31 best horror movies of the decade and doing a closer look at why each one earned a spot on our list!
27. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler, 2015)
I don't expect that every reader of Cinema76 has listened to my podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, but if you have you'll know that ever since we discovered it on episode 56, we've begun every episode with the greeting "Boooooone Tomahawk!" I was hoping after revisiting the movie for the 3rd or 4th time this week I would have some grand analysis of the movie to provide you here, a reason as to why it resonated with us so much that it's officially part of every single episode of our show. But S. Craig Zahler's debut feature as a director remains the most solid mystery of the decade for me in the sense that I can't point at anything in particular that makes me love it so. It's just pure movie-candy for me.
I could recount all the things I love about this movie here. I could tell you how absolutely fantastic I think the script is. The way it takes its time and slowly builds its tension with perfect, patient pacing before literally eviscerating it in its final moments is masterful storytelling. And I find the dialogue so sing-songy perfect, like something out of our collective fictionalized version of The Old West™. It's one of my most quoted movies of the decade. Were it not for the wild finale, this is a movie I could easily fall asleep listening to.
The performances help this a great deal. So I could also be telling you about how I didn't even know Richard Jenkins was playing Chicory until over 90 minutes into the movie when we finally googled it. It's one of very few performances from this decade that I would tag with the "disappears into his role" label, and my partner could attest that every second he's on screen I am beaming with delight. I could tell you about how tremendous Matthew Fox is in his role here. He'll likely never be as perfectly suited for a character as he is Brooder, a man as despicable as he is well-groomed. If I told you about them I'd of course have to mention Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Lili Simmons, and even supporting players like David Arquette, Fred Melamed, and the late Sid Haig who are all turning in some of their best work for what is ultimately a low budget b-movie. This happens so rarely and is such a treat.
But to talk about any of the performances without talking about how Zahler lenses them, studying their manners with the same patience he gives to their conversation, would be a disservice to his skill as a film maker. In that case I would need to tell you that these characters are all presented as varying versions of masculinity, both real and imagined through fairy tales of the West, and Zahler lets their fumbling hands, creased faces, measured outbursts, and choice of dress do as much work to characterize them as his loquacious script. I would also need to mention that this skill extends to his framing of various tableaus of our heroes on gorgeous vistas, that is or course, if I were to try and mention all of these things. In fact, this re-watch eliminated my singular hesitation with this movie - that I wasn't crazy about how it looked. This was my first viewing on Blu-ray, and it looks fantastic compared to the streams available on Netflix or Amazon where I had previously found it a bit dull.
I suppose if I really had to try and explain why this movie works so well for me, I would have to tie all of this together. What do these great performances based on this excellent script presented with such patient precision amount to? Well, an exploitation movie, really. By the end, Zahler isn't playing around or being subtle. He takes a literal bone tomahawk to his heroes’ odyssey and has Samantha (Simmons) respond with "This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots." It's blunt to the point of being a bit silly, but that's honestly a fine description of this movie that shouldn't be taken as an insult. In telling a story strictly from the perspectives of these men, who are to varying degrees self-aggrandizing, racist, selfish, and just plain curious enough to be foolish, Zahler ultimately dismantles the myth of the heroic cowboy and our collective dream of The Old West™ and uses the architecture of monster movies to show it to be the nightmare it must have truly been.
Also, while this may not seem a proper measure by which to rate a movie, it's important to note none-the-less - it's metal as fuck and that is absolutely a factor in my enjoyment of it. I can hear chugging guitars slowly marching closer as the run-time ticks by. Sign of the horns, motherfucker.
So, while I may not be able to put my finger on what exactly makes this such a delectable movie-treat for me, it's only because I like so much about it that I've cut literal pages out of this review to make it readable for this feature. It is hands down one of my favorite horror movies of the decade, managing to be extremely entertaining by leveraging otherwise expensive talent while exploiting the ongoing discourse about toxic masculinity that puts it squarely in conversation with the decade in which it was made. In the current movie industry, that is quite the feat.
And with that, I bid you all a merry Bone Tomahawk this holiday season.