The Pale Horse of Death: Bone Tomahawk's Western Hellride

The western and the horror movie are two genres that can be very difficult to get right. In both cases, less skilled hands tend to over or underwork the material, relying on tired clichés, paying short shrift to elemental building blocks like plot and character in favor of cheap scares or cartoonish riffs on previous genre entries. This is a roundabout way of saying that while it’s generally true that there are more bad films than good, this rule seems to apply doubly to westerns and horror movies. Perhaps the easy associations one is able to make by embracing genre tropes have created a homing beacon for the lazy, or perhaps they’re simply more difficult to get right.

In either case, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk has managed to pull off the commendable feat of being a worthwhile film in both genres, to the degree that one wonders why the horror western isn’t a type of film attempted more often. It’s difficult to imagine a setting more fitting for grisly devastation than the half-settled dustpan of the American southwest of the 19th century.

From it’s first frame, Bone Tomahawk is brutally violent, but the machinations of history surround the time period aid in granting what could be cartoonish with an air of something adjacent to authenticity. Any film about western settlers is on some level a film about ordinary people plunging into the unknown, taking word of mouth accounts as fact enough to pull up stakes and strike out for something akin to a new world. Through that prism, Bone Tomahawk is more of a western that uses horror elements to great effect as a kind of violent seasoning. The cast of disparate settlers simply find themselves up against a more harrowing and sinister unknown than they would in most other westerns. Substitute a gang of drunken gunfighters and criminals for a tribe of otherworldly, cave-dwelling cannibals, and the result is actually something of an überwestern.

Bone Tomahawk’s menace of apex cannibals is what makes it more akin to Predator than The Searchers. The underground tribe is powerful and terrifying to the point that even by the end, one’s not totally certain that they’re human. Decorated with otherworldly body modifications and communicative only via hauntingly modulated whistles and screams, they’re the secret fear in the heart of every intrepid settler writ large. An unstoppable, inscrutable force ungoverned by human laws and given to perpetrating acts of unspeakable violence.

Then again, a suitable adversary for Kurt Russell would need to be so petrifying.

The cast is small but able, with Russell as the noble law man, Richard Jenkins as his oft-inebriate deputy, Matthew Fox as an arrogant gunfighter, and Patrick Wilson as a hobbled husband who sets out with the raiding party to try and rescue his kidnapped wife (Lili Simmons). Supporting cast members like David Arquette, Sid Haig, Michael Paré, Jamie Hector, Fred Melamed, James Tolkan, and Sean Young round out the unsuspecting settlement.

Zahler’s script and direction are wise, recognizing the beauty in keeping Bone Tomahawk a simple affair. Though there are some welcome linguistic embellishments to reflect the times, the story is swift and concise, almost primal. Establish, imperil, descend. When the average life expectancy is that low, there’s little time for ambiguity.

The music is as sparse as the landscape and the special effects are a rarely deft blend of practical and computer-generated, particularly potent given the commendably high levels of gore reached.

Just in time for Halloween, Bone Tomahawk is a desperate, bloody, thrilling affair that recognizes the longest shadows are cast in the lowest light. Fans of westerns and horror movies, and those who consider Kurt Russell a minor deity should all be pleased and pleasantly disgusted.

At the time of publishing, Bone Tomahawk is in limited theatrical release and is available everywhere on multiple V.O.D. platforms.