“The cavalry is riding right now” reassures Kurt Russell to a fellow captive. Moments later, that captive is hideously butchered by cave dwelling cannibals in a death scene of such oppressiveness and misery that it puts the Saw franchise to shame. However, this is not a John Ford western of yesteryear; there is no cavalry coming to the rescue and a similarly grotesque fate potentially awaits the rest of the cast. It’s an unsettling sequence but it epitomises why Bone Tomahawk is an awaiting cult classic and is in dire need of a larger audience.
The narrative has echoes of The Searchers: a small group of men ride out to rescue loved ones who have been abducted by natives (or savages, if you live in the 19th century). But whereas The Searchers is filled with bright vistas and cartoonish humour to neutralise its dark subject matter, Bone Tomahawk is a continuously bleak revamping of one of the most celebrated Golden Age films. Utilising a unique symbiotic relationship of the western and horror genres, director S. Craig Zahler constructs a nail-biting odyssey to the underworld that subverts the classical genre expectations with real gusto.
Kurt Russell, no stranger to cult classics or westerns, is the stoic sheriff Franklin Hunt who sets off with Matthew Fox’s gun-slinging Brooder, Richard Jenkins’s endearing Chicory and Patrick Wilson’s crippled Arthur. Ahead of them lies bones, tomahawks and a tribe of troglodytes.
The western genre was once the crown jewel of the Hollywood machine, but it has since ground to a halt – its gears exasperated by repetition, outdated politics and a diminishing audience. Hybrid Westerns have been attempted before (2011’s sci-fi Cowboys & Aliens should be avoided) but it is with Bone Tomahawk that an indication of the western’s future is most apparent. Staying true to his vision, Zahler has injected a near dead genre with a potent amount of horror-based adrenaline which is proof that both unlikely matches can be blended together exceedingly well and faded conventions can be rejuvenated.
Both a perfect introduction and re-introduction to the western, Bone Tomahawk transcends its wickedly cool title. It’s packed with unforgettable images, tell-your-friends moments, and it will leave you with palms so sweaty, the remote will be like soap in the shower.
Bone Tomahawk, directed by S. Craig Zahler, is available now via digital streaming platforms. Certificate 18.