“Not for the faint of heart” and “strong stomach required” seem slightly inadequate as warnings for Bone Tomahawk, an unsettling and effective western/horror hybrid from writer/director S Craig Zahler. So yes, let’s get the warnings out of the way upfront: contains extremely graphic 18-certificate scenes of violence, blood, gore and dismemberment. Think The Searchers meets an early 1980s video nasty like Cannibal Ferox.
To his credit, Zahler knows how to use such extreme gore very effectively. Early potentially gruesome sequences are restrained in comparison with the latter segment of the film. Instead, Zahler wisely builds his story slowly, opening with an unsettling sequence of two murderous thieves inadvertently violating the taboo of a Native American burial ground and thus incurring their wrath. However, this group are not any known Native American tribe but rather a savage, nightmarish, cannibal breed known as troglodytes by both other Native Americans and western settlers alike. They are a seemingly supernatural, demonic menace; entirely other, resembling orcs rather than humans. And they are very, very deadly.
Seeking vengeance, the troglodytes kill one of the two thieves then pursue the other to a nearby town. The surviving thief is promptly arrested by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) with disastrous results leading to captives being taken by the troglodytes. A rescue mission is promptly undertaken by Hunt, his deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a bigoted but enigmatic wealthy Indian killer called Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Arthur (Patrick Wilson) a temporarily crippled cowhand who insists on going because his wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) was one of those captured.
During their quest, the film takes time to get to know these flawed but fascinating characters, and consequently the audience ends up really rooting for them. Performances are all solid, with Kurt Russell being the clear stand-out. Even Fox’s Brooder, who obviously draws some inspiration from John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, is compelling albeit repellent. Also, because utter barbarism is what they are up against, whatever shades of grey exists amongst the posse seems positively squeaky clean in comparison. In short, this does what The Hateful Eight did not despite being the technically more proficient movie: it gives us someone to root for.
Then, as I mentioned earlier, it gets violent. Really violent. And gory. Really gory. You might end up watching from between your fingers, but Bone Tomahawk is a very satisfying genre bending movie for those who have the constitution for it. I’d say it’s destined for cult status.