Terrifying Horror Powered by Stellar Performances
Blending two genres like western and horror can be a major challenge due to the iconic elements each type of film and the demands of their fans. In the worst cases, the results are strange tonal issues and an inability to fully please any audience completely. But when done right, the resulting concoction can be a potent blend that feels like nothing else. Combining pitch perfect acting, strong characters, on-point Western themes, and shocking horror, Bone Tomahawk is a brutal yet honest western horror that leaves a lingering mark.
Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk follows four men on the trail of a brutal, canabalistic tribe that has abducted several people from their small town, including the wife of one of the men. As Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Deputy Chicory Kory (Richard Jenkins) make their way across the wilderness, they encounter unexpected dangers while making their way ever closer to a confrontation that is far more deadly than they could ever imagine.
While the terrifying nature of the troglodytic clan at the center of the film is one of Bone Tomahawk’s most haunting elements, what makes Zahler’s film work so well is that it takes its time in setting up its premise and exploring its characters. While sudden and irrevocable violence permeates the film, often looming over the heads of its characters like the Sword of Damocles, the film is far more interested in examining the inner lives of the four men who ride out in search of those who were taken. In doing so, we are given greater reason to invest in each character than what is often seen with the most clichéd horror films. These aren’t stock characters set up simply for the enjoyment of a gruesome kill, but rather fully formed individuals facing a terrifying ordeal. In doing so, the fear becomes far more personal and the stakes all the higher.
But Bone Tomahawk waits to get to outright horror after an opening scene filled with enough raw violence to clue in audiences to the horrifying scenes that will come much later. Zahler’s film owes just as much to John Ford’s The Searchers as it does to Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, with the sprawling frontier journey descending into jaw-dropping violence for a one-two punch that truly hurts. And like Ford’s classic western, Zahler’s film juxtaposes the interior lives of its characters against the sprawling backdrop of their journey, as well as the violence they experience and inflict.
And make no mistake, when the violence hits, it leaves a lasting impression. Zahler is unflinching in how he films every attack. Without delving into detail for the sake of both spoilers and stomachs, the third act of Bone Tomahawk involves one of the grisliest, most jaw-dropping scenes of unspeakable violence seen in a mainstream film in years. While that may not be something that would attract most audiences to a film, its inclusion here spells out just how committed Zahler is to making his film a no-holds-barred bloodbath when it needs to be. Violence isn’t glamorized here, but rather vividly illustrated in all its blood-curdling stark detail.
Death comes swift in Bone Tomahawk, catching the audience off guard just as much as its characters. Zahler often films the act of violence without any form of setup, with arrows, knives, tomahawks, and bullets flying in from offscreen, their origins unseen to both audience and victim. The result is startling and truly brutal, underscoring the film’s commitment to lasting physical consequences and a lack of glamorization of the Old West. While Zahler retains just enough charm for the Western setting of his film, Bone Tomahawk’s approach is far more in line with the grimy revisionist takes of the early ‘90s than the squeaky clean classics of the ‘50s. Combined with an appropriately sparse yet creepily old timey score by Jeff Herriott and Zahler and there’s a certain sense of unease that keeps the horror themes in play, even when the film focuses on character growth and frontier exploration.
But with Bone Tomahawk’s tiny budget (reportedly only $1.8 million) and small scope comes a need for strong performances. Thankfully, Zahler’s film rests on four powerful lead performances. As town sheriff Hunt, Russell brings his trademark charisma, but in a lower key and with a degree of wounded humanity that is just right for a film this human. Russell has long been able to capture the attention of audiences with his presence alone, no matter the role or genre, and he does so again with a remarkable sense of ease. Now in his 60s, Russell no longer plays the unflappable supermen of the 1980s, but instead leans into his commanding presence, which is only strengthened by his age. Just as crucial to the film’s success is Wilson as O’Dwyer, whose frantic need to save his wife is hobbled by a broken leg. Wilson sells the many ups and downs of his character, both emotionally and physical, for a performance that generates great sympathy without becoming pathetic. Rather, his arc pushes Bone Tomahawk from being simple genre fun into being a character-focused piece. Like his strongest roles, Wilson brings a fragile resiliency here that seeps into every scene, playing off incredibly well with Russell’s commanding strength.
Backing them up are Fox and Jenkins, playing a smarmy yet deadly gentleman and a kind-hearted deputy, who each become intertwined in the search due to a greater sense of duty. It’s a testament to Zahler’s craft that neither character descends into obvious stereotypes or goes in clichéd directions that are often associated with either genre here. Rather, they are fleshed out and defined as human, complex beings time and time again. That’s not just refreshing in two genres as thoroughly explored as western and horror; it’s exciting in any film.
Bone Tomahawk isn’t searching to redefine westerns or horror. Instead, it seeks to dive into the deep dark heart of the American frontier, with unimaginable terrors found waiting for those foolish or brave enough to face them. Its intimate nature only heightens the insurmountable horrors that are faced, but the sheer degree of skill and unshakable fear found in Zahler’s film should have audiences returning time and time again to this devastating western tale.