Horror westerns are a rare breed, although it only takes a single viewing of Bone Tomahawk to see that they’re wildly compatible genres. Both rely on silence, mood, and strong characters. Both are prone to hyperbole and aggrandization, to stylistic indulgence and the complications of morality. The very best of both worlds rely on ambiguity, a boon to these qualities; and on the more obvious end of things, typically end in bloodbaths and grand proclamations. Bone Tomahawk recognizes all these points of synergy and simply connects the dots.
The cast is stacked for a good time: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins make up our ragtag core of a sheriff, his deputy, the town foreman, and a local womanizer/sophisticate on the trail of a mysterious and lethal tribe of “troglodytes” who kidnap the town doctor, and Patrick Wilson’s wife, played by Lili Simmons. The movies goes to some lengths to sever the ties between the troglodytes--brute, snarling, neanderthalic creatures, like orcs with less armor and no ethics--and the Native American population, going so far as to cast a Native American actor in the role of a Native American local with the sole purpose of pointedly distinguishing the monsters from the men.
Freed of what could have been a problematic implication, Bone Tomahawk’s troglodytes are some of the most frightening villains dreamed up for a horror movie in a long time, not so much for their appearance but for their terrifying efficiency. Their mere presence on screen is an assurance that whatever characters you consider indispensable are quite the opposite--so, depending on what kind of mileage you get out of westerns, it could be a good or bad thing that they’re rarely around. It would be a much, much shorter movie if they were. Most of the film is occupied by writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s snappy, sub-Tarantino dialogue, offering us a chance to get to know these people before they’re mown down by the troglodyte’s signature weapon, and know them well; but whatever your take on dialogue-driven movies, there is a scene toward the end of Bone Tomahawk that will decide for you how much of the troglodytes you really want to see.
Trust me: you’ve never seen a man die like that.
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