The horror-western is not a genre hybrid with a particularly successful past, I can only think of a handful immediately and of those only one is worth watching. Bone Tomahawk takes a new stab at this mash-up and does so quite literally, starting as one, ending as the other. It sounds like it could be a recipe for a muddled mess of a movie, but in fact Bone Tomahawk emerges as one of the most original films I’ve seen this year.
Other than a couple of quick death scenes, the first hour or so of the movie plays out very much like how a traditional Western might. Local Sherriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) has a run-in with an erratic-acting man (David Arquette) in the saloon resulting in Hunt non-fatally shooting him. He then takes him back to the Sherriff’s office and calls doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) to operate on him. Later that night, Samantha gets kidnapped by an unknown group of savages (not Native Americans, as the film calmly establishes) so Hunt attempts to set up a rescue mission.
A set-up like this is easily inviting comparisons to John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers, but that’s honestly not as sacrilegious as it might sound. The film works very hard to firmly establish the group of characters who make up the rescue party. It certainly helps that Bone Tomahawk is filled with spot-on casting decisions. Sherriff Hunt is the kind of role that could have been written especially for Kurt Russell. An actor with a history in both horror and western movies, he plays the no-nonsense lawman as a solid anchor to both the onscreen group and the film itself, not to mention sporting some truly fantastic facial hair. Perhaps the film’s most endearing character though is his elderly, bumbling yet good-hearted deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a man who might not seem quite as suited to this kind of job but tries his best to step-up to the mark when required. Jenkins and Russell work brilliantly together here.
The other two core members are played by Patrick Wilson and Matthew Fox. Wilson, another actor with a lot of horror association but looks right at home in a Western plays the husband of the kidnapped Samantha. Despite suffering a leg injury, he insists on joining the team, determined not to slow them down. Fox, not an actor I’m particularly familiar with having never really liked LOST, delivers the film’s most surprising performance. More of a complex anti-hero type, he’s a confident gunslinger who seems both a bit proud and a bit ashamed of how many Indians he’s killed. He’s undoubtedly a valuable addition to the group, yet also someone happy to judge and kill others on sight. Again, we spend enough time with him for Fox to give him much more depth than a standard bounty-hunter archetype.
Knowing about the cast and premise of Bone Tomahawk going in, I expected that I’d probably like the movie, what I didn’t expect is that I’d be so full of admiration for its dialogue. Written and directed by newcomer S. Craig Zahler, who’s worked primarily as a novelist prior, the film is absolutely filled with (what I assume are) period-appropriate words and expressions. The exchanges between the core group are consistently impressive, frequently quite funny and impeccably delivered by the cast. I almost hope Zahler makes a traditional Western now as a follow-up to further use his obvious skills in this department.
His direction of the film cleverly works around the obvious low-budget he has to use, avoiding large town settings and focusing on barren exteriors. The film moves along at a leisurely pace for the first two acts, echoing the tone of fifties westerns. Zahler does risk giving in to self-indulgence at times, allowing the film a two-hour plus running time. It wouldn’t have suffered from being a tad shorter, but the aforementioned dialogue and character development usually prevents this from becoming an issue.
While you always know the ultimate goal of the team at the centre of this movie and where they’re headed to, it also deserves credit for being quite unpredictable for the most part. It constantly surprises in how the rescue mission goes down. The real horror element doesn’t kick in until the third act. Zahler does risk alienating his audience somewhat here, I’m sure there must be plenty of people who’d enjoy a character-driven Western but would find a cannibal horror an immediate turn-off, but if you’re like me and enjoy a good horror movie as much as a good western then this is a movie for you.
When we encounter the cave-dwelling savages, called Troglodytes, they’re certainly a bunch of memorable horror villains. Pale white mutant warriors with bones protruding from their necks that allow them to emit almost supernatural sounding calls. Up to this point Zahler’s been quite restrained with the violence, usually having quick gunshots result in instant death. Once we’re in Troglodyte territory though, he’s not afraid to ramp it up exponentially. It never feels gratuitous, but Bone Tomahawk does contain on of the single most gruesome death scenes I can recall seeing on film.
Bone Tomahawk is obviously drawing from a number of influences, but ultimately feels like a fairly unique movie unto itself, and announces a potential new talent in S. Craig Zahler. The slow pacing of the first half or the more hardcore horror of the second could be off-putting for some, but if you’re prepared to go with Bone Tomahawk you’ll find and intriguing mixture of classic western and cannibal exploitation film that’s exceptionally well written and performed.