The Western and the Horror are genres that can be traced back to the very beginning of cinema itself, monoliths whose instinctive, visual and often visceral strength were perfect landscapes in which form could incubate from infant to fully formed cultural phenomena. However, while (through peaks and troughs) the Horror genre has been largely visible from 20th to 21st Century, the Western has sadly become a rarity, with only occasional forays into the halcyon days of Western adventure. Therefore, S. Craig Zahler’s decision to create a Western fused with the shock and viscera of exploitation horror in Bone Tomahawk is a bold and unique hybrid that is disorienting, constantly surprising…and packs a vicious punch.

A stranger arriving in town late one night sparks a series of events in which a group of mysterious assailants sneak into town, killing a farmhand and kidnapping the stranger, sheriff’s deputy and local female doctor. Intent on finding them before they are murdered by what they assume must be Indians, a party of four men led by Sheriff Franklin Hunt, including Arthur, the missing doctor’s husband, set off, but are warned that the individuals they seek are not Indians…but something entirely more savage and cruel altogether.

In terms of the narrative, it is a fairly direct piece of Western storytelling: Civilised men head on rescue mission to save their innocent women/children from the savages who seek to corrupt them. So far, so John Ford. However, what makes the film so interesting is the way Zahler uses the streamlined and sleek nature of the narrative as a skeleton to house the guts (literal and metaphorical) and intelligence that drive the film forward. Taking the tension between the men of the town and the unseen threat of the ‘outsider’ that rests at the heart of classic Western mythology, Zahler wisely and acutely sees the relationship between this legend and the central fear of the ‘unknown’ in horror cinema, thus finding a space in which these twin connecting fears are able to both work as a tool to imbue each scene with a creeping dread, the grand landscapes of Ford and Leone are haunted by the spectre of Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as the sense of something lurking in every vast expanse, something ready to tear at the dream of America, permeates the atmosphere of the film. Such a fusion of styles and influences could have been an abject mess…but coalesce into a bricolage of form and thought, reference and ideology.

The physicality and violence of the film hits from the very opening image; a disturbingly blunt and ugly death that sets the sparse tone of the brutal reality of life in the West, no cowboys and Indians…just life and death. Such a cold tone also contrasts the extravagance of the gruesome events that the film inevitably builds to, creating a wonderful sense of stylistic blending, keeping the audience on the edge as the action devolves into madness. To speak about the events of the conclusion would diminish the power, but what I will say is that it features some of the most impactful and, quite frankly, jaw dropping moments of physical horror in recent years. The troglodytes are as cruel as they are imposing. Arguably the film builds to a point of comic-book excess by the conclusion (one image in particular is so outlandish that the shock almost overrides the sadness that goes with it), but rather than harm the film, it adds new levels of textures and energy that builds momentum as an inevitable standoff builds to a crescendo of overwhelming pain and violence.

The cast is a wonderfully assembled collection of often neglected talent, highlighted of course by the ever magnetic and seemingly timeless Kurt Russell. His gravitas and persona are a perfect fit for the determined, if slightly misguidedly macho sheriff who seems set to undertake a suicide mission if it means they did something, no matter how ultimately futile such an action would be. It’s another dominating performance from an iconic star. Richard Jenkins lends exceptional support as the deputy to the deputy Sheriff, a man who begins the film seemingly as pure comic relief, but his honesty and absolute resilience of positivity become as much the emotional heart of the film as the husband, played by the ever dependable everyman per excellence Patrick Wilson, and his journey to overcome his own physical odds to save his wife. A cameo from Sid Haig also shines as a superb nod to the kind of 1960’s and 70’s New World exploitation Zahler lovingly appropriates.

My one criticism of the film would be perhaps the balance of pacing, in particular during the lengthy central odyssey. After an opening act that sets a tone of mystery and tension through a rapid but deliberate pace, the film almost exhales and relaxes as the long quest for the missing townsfolk begins. Initially this is a welcome change of pace that allows space for each of the central characters to express themselves as more than cyphers, developing their drives and internal complexities, much like Ford’s The Searchers. However, as the journey continues, the trek does begin to wear slightly and risks making the simplicity of the characters seem barren rather than intentionally lean. The wild nature of the conclusion of the film does give the Bone Tomahawk a much needed jolt of terror and absolute shock, which is arguably strengthened by this slightly pedestrian centre, but it does feel like more meat could have been stripped from those bones without lessening the impact of the finale.

Bone Tomahawk is a genre mashup that combines the spare visual landscapes and central inquiry into the relationship between man and nature of the Western, with the dark menace and gruesome excess of exploitation horror, to create a sharp modern hybrid that is at once a work of classical style and fresh, twisted and distinctive edge.

Movie Review: Bone Tomahawk
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About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk