In recent years, the western has almost become an instant marker of movie quality and directorial confidence. Since 2007, we’ve had all-time greats like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, critical and commercial successes like Django Unchained and The Revenant and a raft of smaller but no less interesting and engaging films. In Craig Zahler’s exceptionally assured debut film, Bone Tomahawk, he attempts to match this elite genre with one with a far less illustrious and prestigious history – the cannibal horror. While infamous ‘video nasties’ like Cannibal Holocaust have acquired sizable cult followings, it would be very hard to argue that many people-eating-people movies have reached the top tier of cinema.
Fortunately, Zahler’s experiment in combining these two distinct genres is a great success, with a character-driven slow burn of a story occasionally punctuated by genuinely terrifying violence. Wisely, the cave-dwelling and ashen-skinned cannibals, known as Troglodytes, are kept out of the film for the entirety of the second act, allowing for plenty of excellently acted conversations, and keeping their presence sinisterly mysterious. Overall, it might not quite be consistently scary enough for someone looking for a pure horror movie, but for anyone else it’s a very well-balanced cross between traditional cowboy antics and serious gore.
Kurt Russell leads a very capable cast as Sheriff Hunt, the top lawman in Bright Hope, a small town in what is still a pretty wild west. Unfortunately for him, a bandit who disturbed the burial ground of the Troglodytes ends up in his town. Following his trail, they end up raiding the town and kidnapping the bandit, the deputy, and town doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons). Hunt resolves to go and rescue Samantha, accompanied by her husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who is hobbled by a badly damaged leg. Joining them on this mission is sadistic dandy Brooder (Matthew Fox) and the back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins). All four members of the recue party turn in terrific performances, possibly career best work from all of them, necessary when the next 40 minutes of the film consist mainly of the quartet just talking with one another.
Bone Tomahawk has a slow burn, and its leads are very well-drawn. Writer-director Zahler is also a novelist, and he manages to transfer the inner monologue of prose pretty well into dialogue that feels real. Characters are established early on and all their actions are believable, an impressive feat that makes the sudden explosions of savage violence all the more frightening.
And the violence really is shocking, with one particular kill, already semi-infamous, so stomach-churningly brutal that I was actually shaking by the end of it. Not only does it look unimaginably painful, but the all around superb sound design means that every noise lodges itself deep into your brain. Yet, and this is Zahler’s real coup, there’s an emotional connection to all of Bone Tomahawk’s most gruesome scenes, immediately raising the stakes above most other horror films. The solid build-up of character and the great acting means that you feel for every member of the rescue party, so when a cannibalistic monster man comes after them, often wielding the eponymous skeletal weapon, it’s hard not to watch from behind your hands.
When the party first properly encounter the Troglodytes – who communicate using unearthly screams caused by instruments lodged directly in their throats – the audience is just as disoriented as the characters. Once the action kicks off, Zahler brings us in right up close to the fight – it’s too fast and frenetic to possibly keep track of everything. It’s a similar trick, though pulled off with less panache here, to the one used by George Miller last year in Mad Max Fury Road. The camera only knows as much as the characters do in the action scenes, which leaves room for plenty of surprises and no knowledge of who, if anyone, is safe at any point.
Although it might not be as subversive as one would want from a film that’s playing with the tropes of the ever-uncomfortable white woman kidnapped by savages story, Bone Tomahawk is a really excellent blend of two genres that exist on completely different ends of the critical respect spectrum. It’s very much not for everyone, but if you’re alright with the occasional mangling of flesh and bone, then you’re in for a exhilarating and involving ride.