Bone Tomahawk has been described as a ‘horror western hybrid’ ever since its first screening at Fantastic Fest (film festival in Austin, Texas) last September. That genre description is a fairly accurate summation of the overall experience.
I saw the film at its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October, and it was one of the most memorable screenings I’ve ever attended. Granted that may have been due partly to audience reaction (which helped make one scene in particular extremely memorable), and whether it will have a similar effect on everyone remains to be seen, but for me the experience was pretty special. This marks the second year in a row (after 2014’s The Babadook) that I found a directorial debut blew me away more than anything produced by industry veterans – and that S. Craig Zahler apparently shot the film over 14 days with little rehearsal time makes it all the more extraordinary.
If I had to choose one word that best describes Bone Tomahawk it would be ‘visceral’. While it does have more understated qualities (performances, dialogue, cinematography and soundtrack to name a few), this isn’t exactly a film for the faint hearted – a foreboding atmosphere hangs over the whole movie from the opening scene. In this case that’s by no means a bad thing.
Yes, there’s conflict, and violence; people die, often in uncomfortable circumstances. You really feel it because you grow to care about the characters. The film’s antagonists are genuinely intimidating and unsettling, as you can imagine them and their methods existing in real life.
Kurt Russell plays the lead in an ensemble that includes Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins. Russell has of course recently made an appearance in another Western: The Hateful Eight. His performance here is better, arguably his best in years, and all-round this is easily a superior movie to Tarantino’s most recent effort. Matthew Fox is also magnificent, encapsulating his character to the extent that you’ll quickly forget he was Jack Shephard from Lost. David Arquette and Sid Haig make entertaining appearances too. For a directorial debut you’ll hardly find a more impressive cast.
The film counterbalances its more brutal moments with light touches of comedy. Although I have heard mild criticisms regarding the script’s pacing around the middle of the movie, I enjoyed spending time with these characters so much that this was never an issue for me. There was never a dull moment from my point of view.
So it should go without saying now that I think you should see this extraordinary film, if any part of my account of it has appealed to you. I don’t deny that it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. But for those to whom it does sound intriguing, I hope you find as much enjoyment in your “experience” of it as I myself did.