Bone Tomahawk, from first time director S. Craig Zahler, is a genuinely terrifying horror-western hybrid that follows four men on their journey to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers. It’s a deeply unsettling film that builds tension with a calm-before-the-storm attitude before unleashing all hell in a brilliantly crafted, gut-punch of a finale—it’s a gnarly, nasty slice of cinema that deserves your attention, so don’t wait on this one, folks.
Zahler is some kind of madman because not only did he convince a studio to back his wicked creation of cannibals, cowboys and kick ass horror, but he landed a cast spearheaded by Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox—I mean, ho-ly-shit! Any chance to see Kurt Russell on screen is a real treat, especially when he’s jumping back into the genre with a film as nuts as this one, but the real surprise here was Jenkins who provides some well placed humor in a world stricken with pure evil.
And that’s actually what I want to highlight first—Bone Tomahawk is the real deal, brimming with nastiness and a constant sense of dread, yet the film breaks up these tense moments with Jenkins’ impossibly charming character whose loyalty and innocence shines even in the darkest of places. He binds this group together as they trek through the Wild West, almost certainly to their doom, and somehow he still manages to find hope in it all.
A lot of the movie is spent on their journey across the unforgiving west as a dark cloud hangs above them every step of the way. It’s this sense of impending doom that allows the film to get right under the skin, and the reason why it’s so successful in doing so is because we already know what’s at the end of the trail—the film’s opening scene firmly plants the viciousness of these savages in the back of our minds—so it’s only a matter of time before they come face-to-face with the devil. And because all of these characters have so much value to the story and they’re all developed so well, it ups the stakes and Bone Tomahawk knows it; it can’t wait to rip every ounce of hope you have to shreds, believe me.
This is as confident of a first feature film from Zahler as it gets because he masterfully blends true horror with the gorgeous vastness of the western genre. It’s as much a western as it is a horror film and there’s a realness to it that’s simply terrifying, and its remarkably brutal nature is the stuff of nightmares. It smartly hides its monsters from us, too, but only until it matters. We catch quick shots of them early on, but it isn’t until the film’s final act that we really see them. And it’s all part of this calculated build up, because while we don’t see the troglodytes until the end, we’ve been hearing them throughout the entire film, wailing in the night as the end inches closer.
But where Bone Tomahawk really twists the knife is in its unforgettable final act, where our heroes quickly discover that their long and painful journey was only half the battle. It’s in this moment that the characters truly understand what they’ve got themselves into—this realization also bleeds into the audience, too, because the film gets so vicious, so nasty and disturbing that it will absolutely destroy you if you aren’t prepared for it. It’s a film that crawls towards imminent horror, teasing you along the way with sounds of terror as they echo off the mountains and stretch across the plains.