Bone Tomahawk is to 2015 what The Guest was to 2014: a self-conscious attempt at “cult” status, paying homage to pulpy genre fare and wearing influences proudly on its sleeve. Some don’t bite at these sorts of pictures. I do, so long as they’re good, and Bone Tomahawk certainly is. It is a simple revenge/rescue movie – four men (led by Kurt Russell and his ever-impressive mustache) ride out in search of a group of abductees kidnapped by a clan of cannibals – but writer/director S. Craig Zahler elevates it with a rare injection of urgency.
Patrick Wilson, bringing his usual energy and sincerity, plays Arthur, husband of one of the people taken captive by the cannibals. Thing is, he’s got a bad leg. Zahler takes his time with the movie (it runs just over two hours) but this sense of urgency and constant threat of danger hang palpable in the air. Much of this is due to the truly ragtag nature of the group. Richard Jenkins, who both plays Russell’s Deputy and steals the movie, is old and battle useless, Russell’s Sheriff himself is capable but aging, and Wilson’s leg is constantly life threatening. There’s a vulnerability to this group, exacerbated by Zahler’s ominous, foggy night photography, often holding the camera at a distance from the group and allowing our minds to fill in the possibilities of danger.
They say our minds will almost always imagine things far more terrifying than what we are ultimately shown. With Bone Tomahawk I’m not so certain. Zahler effortlessly fuses the Western and the Horror genres, and they work together with such synergy he makes them feel inextricably linked. The beating, threatening sun in the day, the vast expanse of the night, the long deep breaths of his exhausted characters build this sense of human fragility in this inhuman landscape. He builds a sense of dread, and then shatters it with gruesome violence that verges on gratuitous. As outlandish as much of Bone Tomahawk is, Zahler juxtaposes these moments with a sincere, respectful, and realistic handling of his characters rarely seen in genre pictures boasting buckets of blood such as this. Give me this over Eli Roth’s misjudged Green Inferno any day.