Billed as a horror-Western, Bone Tomahawk is a film without direct cinematic precedent. For starters, it’s really more of a Western with a short horror film packaged seamlessly into one brief and glorious stretch of its narrative. It’s also the first very good film in the history of film to marry the two genres (with respect to the great Dusk Till Dawn, which isn’t really a Western). I am, of course, operating on the premise that such titles as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula, The Quick and Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter aren’t exactly “triumphs.”
Sure, you could argue that it draws from a patchwork of disparate sources: an amalgam of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, or perhaps the warped offspring of The Descent and Apocalypto.
The closest singular film I can link it to would be the black comedy Ravenous (1999). Both, after all, are cannibal-themed period pieces that traffic in undertones of supernatural terror while maintaining a sense of morbid humor.
Bone Tomahawk, however, is simply a different kind of animal. Its humor is more subtle; its horror worlds more horrific; its Western more… Western. The closest singular source I can link it to is Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, but while that would encompass Bone Tomahwak’s grotesque and philosophical Western leanings, it doesn’t fully capture the more traditional horror avenue into which it (quite literally) devolves.
In short, this movie does something profound for viewers like myself (and other adherents of the idea that bleak cinema is like ASMR) by combining two of the best grim genres ever created into a tidy little package of bloody carnage and retaining the bleakest soulful expression that each has to offer. Furthermore, there has never been a more perfect movie to recommend on a blog that doesn’t focus specifically on horror, crime, Western or thriller, but instead connects these genres through an undercurrent of thrilling morbidity and bleakness.
But enough gushy babbling. Here’s your goddam synopsis:
Like Ravenous, Bone Tomahawk is propelled in part by a fantastic cast of recognizable b-listers. Ravenous gave us the great performances of Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones. In Tomahawk we have Kurt Russell harkening back to his Snake Plissken and R.J. MacReady days as a mean-as-nails, no-nonsense sonuvabitch frontier sherriff.
Speaking of The Thing, first-time director S. Craig Zahler draws from a dark pool of horror and crime cinema vets to bring his script to life. Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) steals the show as a simple-minded, chatty backup deputy who serves as Russell’s loyal bloodhound.
James Wan alum Patrick Wilson (who I’m starting to realize can actually act, even if he ain’t much with a Western accent) plays the lead of a crippled land surveyor spearheading a rescue party. We also get Sid Haig (Rob Zombie vet), David Arquette (Scream, Ravenous), Zahn McClarnon (Season Two of Fargo, Resolution) and Lili Simmons (True Detective, Banshee), with the latter looking way too hot for frontier life. Oh, and then there’s Matthew fucking Fox as a bloodthirsty playboy Indian hunter in what might just be his best-ever role (meaning it’s completely tolerable).
I don’t really feel like giving much away about this film, as I think you should just experience it knowing that you’re going to get something Western, weird and horrific. But for a bit of background, it borrows the theme of a doomed four-man search-and-rescue party a la John Ford’s Searchers who are out to retrieve a damsel in distress from a group of “troglodyte” cave-dwelling Indians. (A story which was originally inspired by the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, as chronicled in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon—a must-read for Cormac McCarthy fans, by the way.)
Packed with brilliant dialogue (especially in the hands of Richard Jenkins), claustrophobically sublime Old West cinematography and one of the best climaxes I’ve seen in any genre in years, Bone Tomahawk would surely make my list of the best horror films of the past decade. But then there’s the predicament of how—like a another one of my favorite 2015 would-be horror films, Spring—it isn’t a full-fledged horror film. It’s an anomaly. A brilliant, grotesque, slow-burn anomaly that you simply have to behold to comprehend.
NOTE: Bone Tomahawk is currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers.