The western has been convincingly revitalised in the mainstream in the last couple of years in a variety of impressive guises, so it was only a matter of time before this particular renaissance was given the horror treatment. Most obviously Tarantino arguably ventured into this territory twice, fusing western standards both with a bold historical re-imagining (Django Unchained) and an Agatha Christie-tinged ‘And Then There Were None’ style mystery (The Hateful Eight). Elsewhere, The Coen Brothers’ True Grit was out-Coensed only by John Maclean’s dazzling indie crossover Slow West, and Mads Mikkelsen played more to genre convention in The Salvation. Now, long-time cinematographer and first-time director Craig S. Zahler nails the horror injection with Bone Tomahawk, a sprawling, ambitious and punishing effort that might well be the first entry into the “cannibal western” sub-genre (I’m open to correction on this point).
An ensemble cast including Kurt Russell, Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins and Insidious star Patrick Wilson all bring first-rate performances to the table as Bone Tomahawk tells the tale of a small group of men’s mission to recover the wife of Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson), who has been taken prisoner by a band of cannibalistic savages. Jenkins, barely recognisable in ageing makeup, is arguably the best of the bunch, but there are no weak links here. The threat here is understated for much of the first two acts, but still feels suitably ominous – it’s a film that feels uneasy from the opening frame, in a way you can’t ever quite put your finger on.
While the final act ups the ante in terms of bloodshed (some of the violence here is genuinely stomach-turning), it never strays too far from its carefully-defined vision. Dedicated to a tone that’s more of quiet unease than gratuitous bombast, this is a film of real poise and character: an authentic western with a truly unique twist.