By the time I got around to Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler’s horror-Western-70’s drama hybrid, its reputation was quite ahead of it. The best way to see it undoubtedly would have been to jump in cold, not even knowing the weird genre bends to come; as it was, I knew a few things to expect. I knew the film took its time; I knew it started as a relatively talky, 70’s-esque western before turning into a nightmare; and I knew that the film involved a cannibalistic tribe of natives, who brought with them into the film some heavy gore.
And yet, none of that really robbed Bone Tomahawk of any of its myriad pleasures, nor did it prepare me for the shaggy, lived-in feel of the performances, nor the way its languid tone is used to great effect before it’s yanked away from you in that nightmarish final act. I’ve read comparisons between Bone Tomahawk and the films of Quentin Tarantino, and while I can see where they come from – both take a dialogue-heavy approach to evoking those character studies of the 1970’s; both enjoy a writerly turn of phrase; both (and I’m leaning here particularly on The Hateful Eight as a comparison point) manage to create a vibrant Western environment while still leaning into a revisionist take on the genre – ultimately, Bone Tomahawk feels more like its own wonderful, odd film.
Much of that has to be laid at the feet of some of the great performances, from a welcome turn by a grindhouse icon in the opening scene to the wonderful partnership of Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins, each playing a fascinating take on the “western sheriff and his deputy” trope. Russell is phenomenal, playing an icon of decency who manages to both clearly evoke strains of John Wayne (it’s not a coincidence, I think, that Bone Tomahawk plays out like a horrifying take on The Searchers) and yet also brings a decency and sense of justice that was often lost in Wayne’s bravado and machismo. And then there’s Jenkins, playing the part of a fiercely loyal deputy whose best days are behind him, and yet nonetheless is the kind of friend you would want with you until the bitter end. Add to that Matthew Fox playing as a violent manhunter with upper-class sensibilities and Patrick Wilson as the doting but helpless husband, and you’ve got a pretty powerhouse cast for your posse.
The plot couldn’t be simpler – a townswoman goes missing, and a group of men go to find her, even though the “tribe” that’s taken her is only whispered of amongst true natives, and then with a sense of horror. And trust me – by the time you meet the clan of cannibalistic, brutal cave dwellers, they live up to the buildup, with Zahler creating something so fundamentally nightmarish and almost alien that it defies logic and plunges you into a nightmare. It’s a weird gearshift for any movie, but Bone Tomahawk makes it work simply by virtue of how hard it goes for it, with all hell breaking loose within seconds and no sense of hesitation. And that final act is relentless, bloody fare, with one already (in)famous scene that’s earned the film a following among gorehounds, and rightfully so.
And yet, for as memorable as that final act is, Bone Tomahawk is as watchable and enjoyable for its patter, for its engaging with Western tropes and archetypes, and for its devotion to this mission into the heart of the West. Anyone can do a horror sequence, but Zahler’s first two acts show a man with more on his mind, investing us in the characters and immersing us in their time, and lulling us into a false sense of security by keeping its mind in the “real world” at all times. Even without the final act, Bone Tomahawk would be great; it’s just that the final act transforms the film into something else (though what exactly that something else is is up for debate, I think) and creates a hybrid that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Bone Tomahawk is a little overlong; the ending is a little abrupt; some of the shagginess could be cut; there are a couple of characters that feel underdeveloped or underused; and there’s a sense that Wilson’s role is only about half of a character at times. But for all of that, it also feels like the work of a director with a unique and compelling vision, one that’s not easily hemmed in by genre boundaries, and one that’s eager to both embrace the grindhouse roots of his films and modern methods, uniting them in a way that feels both old-fashioned and exciting. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a damn good one, and one that leaves me excited thinking that this is just the start for Zahler’s career.