Four men are huddling round a camp fire, about to eat supper after a long day’s ride; one man stops to pray but the words get stuck in his throat, the sheer utterance of God’s name borders the blasphemous in this sun-scorched abyss.
This is where the central characters of S. Craig Zahler’s debut feature find themselves as they pursue a clan of cannibalistic savages and their abductee, the local doctor’s assistant Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), across what can only be described as a desolate wasteland. Leading the search party is the capable and somewhat sturdy sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russel). He wrangles together a posse of three other men: Samantha’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), the simple minded backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and the debonair yet sinister Brooder (Matthew Fox).
The four central characters are effective archetypes of the western genre. Hunt is the hardened sheriff, Arthur the attractive cowboy, Brooder with his questionable past and distaste for Indians, and Chicory, who appears altogether too soft for frontier life. As the misbegotten rescue attempt beings, with bandits, savages and the wastes lying in their path, the quartet quickly transcend their character clichés, however. Kurt Russel’s performance as the sheriff is as good as his in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but does not overshadow that of his co-stars. Richard Jenkins’ Chicory supplies us with some warmly welcomed comic relief, with his innocence and slow-wittedness softening the film’s otherwise altogether serious tone. The character of Brooder is arguably most interesting of all; he almost suits bandit life better than that of civilised folk, this being if not for his self-admitted vanity and love for the finer things. Being a product of his environment, he reflects both the light of western comforts, but too the harshness of frontier life.
For the first 90 minutes or so the film plays out as a straight western, reaching back to John Ford’s The Searchers, and following a string of more recent films including Slow West, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant. What sets Bone Tomahawk apart from its contemporaries, however, is its final, explosively gory, climax. It is clear from the opening scenes that the cannibalistic clan responsible for kidnapping Mrs O’Dwyer, known only as troglodytes, are no ordinary Indians. They are instead savages amongst savages, who barely resemble anything human at all. With no language to speak of, they instead communicate using an eerie, somewhat elemental howling, likening them more to the supernatural. It is no surprise, then, that they are as gruesome as they are creepy. One scene in particular, successfully executed using practical effects, brings to mind the sort of gore reminiscent of a Mortal Kombat fatality, manifested with such realism it would render even Noob Saibot shielding his loins.
It’s very rare that such rich tension in a film is actually met, and in this case exceeded, by a finale. Bone Tomahawk successfully melds the western and horror genres in a way that doesn’t detract from either, and is likely heading for cult status among fans of both.