“The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes,” is the simplest and most efficient way to describe the gruesome, brutal, and oddly compelling western / horror combo called Bone Tomahawk. Western / horror combos are a relative rarity to begin with, let alone ones that can boast a disconcertingly literate screenplay, a handful of legitimately terrifying sequences, and a high-end ensemble cast that’s clearly having some fun with the old-school multi-genre approach.
The plot is appreciably straightforward stuff: four heroic men head out into the badlands when a beautiful young woman is abducted by an ancient tribe of monstrous, flesh-eating natives. Like I said: The Searchers mixed with The Hills Have Eyes. It’s certainly an appealing prospect for a B-movie fan, but fortunately Bone Tomahawk has a bit more in its corner than just the DNA of two well-regarded old movies. To start with, the screenplay (by director S. Craig Zahler) often feels like a Coen-esque collection of pulpy banter. Characters who initially seem to be dim, one-note archetypes prove to be a lot more witty as the trek drags on, which does keep things interesting between the violent bits.
Our heroes are: the husband (Patrick Wilson) of the kidnapped maiden; the arrogant sharpshooter (Matthew Fox) who feels responsible for her abduction; the loyal old deputy (Richard Jenkins) who rarely stops talking; and the noble sheriff (Kurt Russell) who’s just doing his job by leading this rescue party across some endlessly unforgiving landscapes. If Act I feels like a “quaint” old western full of familiar moments and broad characters, and Act II feels like an homage to John Ford’s most epic adventures, then the last third of Bone Tomahawk is full-bore Craven-style carnage and mayhem of the nastiest variety.
The flick switches genres, tones, and temperament all over the place, and that’s part of what makes Bone Tomahawk so oddly enjoyable — by adhering to the various tropes and conventions of two distinct genres, you simply aren’t sure what the next scene will bring. It could be a typical campfire scene…or it could be a full-bore cannibal attack. All four of the leads leads are solid; they play the material like it’s a hard-boiled, blood-soaked, straight-faced comic book adaptation. It’s tough to match up to the coolness of Kurt Russell in a western, but Wilson and Fox do a fine job of keeping up. Richard Jenkins, as usual, steals two or three scenes without breaking a sweat.
And while the film succeeds on sheer force of weird energy and bad-ass attitude, there’s also a welcome sense of humor that runs through even the darkest moments. Much of Bone Tomahawk is a celebration of old-fashioned western flick clichés, tropes, and stereotypes — only this time they’ve been combined with the heart of a horrifically freaky cannibal horror story. It’s this uncommon but fitting combination that keeps the flick moving forward even during a handful of second act slow spots.
Handsomely shot and cleverly written, Bone Tomahawk is a colorful, dark, and enjoyably unpredictable combination of two notoriously violent film genres, and in that department the film does not disappoint. (Suffice to say that this is not a kid-friendly movie.) The filmmakers get the western vibe down, and impressively so, and then it’s a slow-burn quest for the scary stuff, which packs a powerful punch when it does hit the screen. The end result is a mean-spirited and creepy, but oddly amusing, Old West tale that feels like an homage to Robert E. Howard’s wildest western chillers.