When it comes to genre mash-ups, Bone Tomahawk is one of the most satisfying in recent years as it melds the grunty nature and muscular writing of the westerns with the ferocious intensity of the horrors. Using general templates from the two genres, the film makes the most out of its simple and even admittedly archetypal storyline in this late-1800s setting where a group of men must traverse across a vast barren landscape to rescue a damsel in distress who has been taken by a pack of savages.
The husband of the kidnapped woman is Arthur (Patrick Wilson) who embarks on the journey despite his temporary disability in the form of a broken leg. He is lead by the kind and orderly Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), along with bumbling, semi-senile, but dedicated assistant Chicory (Richard Jenkins), and they are also joined by the uber-serious and meticulous scout who goes appropriately by the name Brooder (Matthew Fox), whose irritating company is essential for these wanderers to make their way to the savages.
For an incredibly low-budget film in what is considered not a commercially viable genre, the cast of Bone Tomahawk is filled with stars (including very brief roles by Blade Runner’s Sean Young and A Serious Man’s Fred Melamed) who all perfectly bring this wonderfully scribed screenplay to life. Strong dialogue that emphasises the fiery conflict between characters was a staple of the western genre, and as that genre has dissipated over the years, so too has this sort of screenwriting. First time director S. Craig Zahler has previously written a few novels and he demonstrates his literary prowess in the meaty and impressive screenplay he wrote for this directorial debut of his. It’s amazing to hear Zahler and his fellow filmmakers decided to use his first draft for the film and changed very little in story and dialogue, meaning this may be a testament to allowing creative control to the director in charge. In what is a strong contender for best screenplay of the ‘10s so far, Zahler has carved each line to perfection, making each and every word absolutely essential to not only progressing the storyline, but also entertainingly establishing how each character speaks.
It’s rather fortunate that this wasn’t the only Kurt Russell-starring Western of 2015, as The Hateful Eight featured similarly impactful dialogue and also worked its way toward a most gruesome ending. One of the key differences was that whereas The Hateful Eight’s claustrophobic snowed-in setting contained all the characters and their violent interactions together, Bone Tomahawk’s open-space desert setting leaves these characters even more vulnerable to violent attacks. As Chicory observes at one point during their trek “I know the world’s meant to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part”.
The horror element is well played, with the opening sequence setting the tone of the vicious troglodyte villains as a brutish force who meld with their natural surrounding environment, with an eerie vocalisation unique to their tribe. The gore factor also gets gradually turned up through the heroes’ trek, suddenly hitting an apex during one particularly grisly scene that will quench any horror fan’s blood-thirst.
On top of being a novelist, Zahler has also worked as a cinematographer for a few projects, though Bone Tomahawk (shot by Benji Bakshi) is not exactly reminiscent of the gorgeously shot technicolour westerns of the ‘50s. The camera often remains angled down to shoot the dry and rough dirty landscape, and has been colour graded down to appear even droller. It may seem disappointing that Bone Tomahawk isn’t a visual beauty like its influences, but the film clearly doesn’t have aspirations to be a wondrous cinematic feast, but instead opts for a gritty and despairing aesthetic instead – cinematographically speaking, it resembles more a horror than a western.
If you were a fan of The Hateful Eight and its spacious pacing filled with tough-as-nails dialogue between equally tough characters, as well as the audacious amount of gore it suddenly leads in to, then Bone Tomahawk is a high recommendation. It’s certainly one of the better written horror films in recent years (or perhaps ever), plus the superbly engaged acting from the four main leads make it all the more entertaining and thrilling (as well as the actors playing the rather terrifying troglodytes).