A veteran sheriff, an elderly back-up deputy, a vain gentleman and a cowboy cripple set out into the west. Although this sounds like the set-up for a joke, Bone Tomahawk is anything but a slapstick-comedy or a Tarantino imitation. Indeed, writer S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut is an original and refreshing Western with a sustained atmosphere of horror that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. The film opens with the gristly sounds of cutthroat scavengers at work on the frontier that are interrupted by an ominous noise, followed by one of the men being killed by an Indian tribesman. The rest of the narrative is based around the remaining scavenger arriving at the nearest town, unaware he has led this threat back with him.
Bone Tomahawk contains some truly beautiful scenery and settings; long-shots of the four men traversing the western desert display an innate beauty to the world Zahler has created. This beauty is contrasted masterfully by the horrors that inhabit these scenes, be it from Arthur O’Dwyre’s (Patrick Wilson) leg injury that is progressively tested and worsened over the trail or the film’s terrifying antagonists. This cannibalistic Indian tribe is disassociated early on to the traditional western Indian portrayed in the genre by an Indian of the town; “they are not my kind”. This unknown and alien threat gradually builds throughout the protagonists’ trail, cohering to the classic fear of the unknown that is applied in many horrors. Zahler retains a certain individuality and uniqueness in his direction of the horror aspects in Bone Tomahawk, allowing the experience to feel fresh and gripping through its entirety.
The character development in this film is nothing short of amazing and I can confidently say the best I have seen in any western film in many years – yes, that includes The Hateful Eight. Each of the four diverse protagonists are given a backstory that really helps the audience connect with them on an emotional level, as you are able to fully understand each of their moral codes and behaviours and empathise towards each in a different way. One character in particular I felt really caught the audience’s attention and evoked a strong emotional connection was Hickory (Richard Jenkins), the back-up deputy of the town. Hickory came across as so heart-warmingly pure in his unquestionable loyalty, admiration of the sheriff and in his willingness to aid the town in any way he could.
With a running time of just over two hours, I went in expecting a dragged out atmospheric approach which has become somewhat typical to the genre. Instead I was given a constantly gripping, quick-witted and smooth narrative that never seemed to drag; Zahler has perfected the harmonising of the two genres. I must say I don’t think I’ve ever physically winced in a cinema or exhaled with my hands over my mouth at a scene until this movie, never mind have the entire audience do it in sync. This is not to be confused with a Tarantino-esque approach to blood and gore, because there really isn’t any at all until one particular scene in the climax of the film that really packs a disgustingly-beautiful punch to the audience. When the complex nature of these antagonists is revealed you won’t be able to help yourself from being astounded and terrified. The threat to the main characters, who by this point you’ve connected with for a good hour and a half, becomes truly unsettling and nerve-wracking. I was utterly gripped through the conclusion of this film and ultimately immensely satisfied. Zahler produces a refreshingly original narrative with beautiful cinematography and characters so diverse and likeable that you feel the level of attachment towards them as though you’ve been reading an entire book series with them at the heart. Bone Tomahawk is simply an experience that I implore you to have.