While it carries some aspects from its predecessors well, it still falls into many of the issues tied in with first features. A director/writer to watch.
The genre-blending Bone Tomahawk is now out in the UK, a western horror that will grab you by the guts and pull you along for the ride. When two bandits desecrate a sacred Indian burial ground, as is always the case, it results in the cannibalistic inhabitants taking their revenge upon the local townsfolk, a revenge which must now be avenged (in typical American history fashion).
While it would be right to call it a mix of genres it would be wrong to call Bone Tomahawk balanced, with a majority of the screen time devoted to a The Searchers-esqe plot, following the town’s assembled force as they trek across wilderness to root out the troglodyte natives. Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins all play their stereotypical characters well (Tough Sheriff, Mysterious Gunslinger, Devoted Everyman, Bumbling Deputy) with aide of the rather brilliant script by first-time writer/director S. Craig Zahler. Conversations feel realistically pedantic whilst offering underhand character development, with occasional moments of wit that feel very natural despite some of the darker moments. However, while kick-started with excitement and intrigue the western aspects quickly become apparent as a guise for the horror that’s to come.
The journey slows exponentially throughout the film, with the immediate haste of the issue at hand becoming seemingly less relevant as time goes on. When the stakes should be raising by the minute they are in fact slipping away into semi-boredom. This is where writing also falls into the horror stereotype of every character having to make stupid decisions in order to provide plot points. While in horror films the mistakes lead directly to a problem these are piled on to the point where it’s hard not to become frustrated with the lack of competence that the characters have. Throughout the film the camera work is deliberately reminiscent of low-budget horror throughout, with shaky cam abound and most composed shots lacking any artistic reason. Even these apparent planned shots seem to be rushed, as every shot with low-light is colour-corrected to fix issues. The film can’t go five minutes without a shot where one character is ringed in an unnatural electric blue light, put in to fix problems with the cinematography.
Similarly the lack of engagement with the western aspects are noticeable from the incredibly bare set design for these sections, as though the crew had walked onto a Wild West set on the day without taking the time to add any personal touches. When the established backstory has such surprisingly detailed writing it’s a shame to see it put to such paper-thin aesthetics. While this does continue into the horror sections, with cave systems that were clearly on sets (as evident from them filming from one perspective like a multi-camera sitcom) this is more in-tune with the films it’s hoping to ape.
When it finally gets to its horror ending though, it’s almost worth it. It harkens back to its inspirations such as Cannibal Holocaust in the most striking way possible and becomes a worthy successor. The complete visceral nature of these brutal scenes is enough to make most audiences look away and block their ears. The prosthetics are brilliant and the sound design for these scenes is sickeningly realistic. The action is handled well and the slower character building moments from before pay off as you panic over who might come under the knife next.
Overall it’s a promising first feature from writer/director Zahler. This is a film that will no doubt bring more attention to him and it’ll be exciting to see what projects come next, hopefully bringing the same amount of talent into the production as the post.
Bone Tomahawk (2015), directed by S. Craig Zahler, is distributed in the UK by The Works. Certificate 18.