If you're going to make a new version of a '70s Italian cannibal movie, to be set in the American Old West, the first thing to do is ask yourself why the actual fuck you want to do that. But okay, let's assume you come up with a satisfying answer, so you go ahead and make it. The best case scenario is that it will end up like Bone Tomahawk, which is exactly that ridiculous genre hybrid, and about which I decided the moment I heard about it, "the odds of it being unsalvageably terrible are high. But if it somehow works... ah, if it somehow works..."

It works. It perhaps wishes that it didn't work - confronted with the reality that a cannibal movie on the Italianate model set in the Old West is pretty much by necessity going to cast Native Americans in the role of the cannibals, the film spends a lot of its energy trying to figure out a way to make that okay. Which is of course stupid. It's never going to be okay - you can dedicate whole scenes to explaining why your scenario is in fact not racist, and make a point of having all but one of the white people in your main cast be inexplicably and anachronistically anti-racist, so they can routinely call out the last, racist one, but at the end of the day, you still have a racist movie. Do you know what the Italian cannibal movies are? They are racist. That's just how it is. Better to own it and move on and hope to keep a low enough profile to get through the culture wars unscathed.

The film cannot possibly have been meant as either a companion piece or a response to Quentin Tarantino's divisive epic The Hateful Eight, but they echo each other a lot: both star Kurt Russell (he's playing a more concrete character in Bone Tomahawk, and is thus more interesting), both end in geysers of the most off-putting violence, but both only get there after an immensely slow opening burn. And both end that burn with a single moment that comes along so abruptly that the whole movie seems to have just been hit in the face with a frying pan. Bone Tomahawk is less ambitious, and as a direct result is more elegant and consistent.

The opening is both foreshadowing and amuse bouche: two repellent men, Buddy (Sid Haig, patron saint of American-made neo-grindhouse indies), and Purvis (David Arquette, who's apparently the patron saint of horror-Westerns about cannibalism: he's also in Ravenous, the only other one I can name), are sneaking through the desolate landscape on a sun-baked day, when they arrive at what looks to be some kind of graveyard. Without quite realising what the hell is going on, Buddy is killed with an arrow and Purvis is set upon by something that's at least human-shaped. Then we cut to eleven days later, and the town of Bright Hope, one of those movie place names that exists solely to facilitate the screenwriter's irony. The town is full of basically fine people, though like most basically fine places in Westerns, evil is scraping along the edges. All that stands in its way is Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), a deputy named Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and a rather unimposing old "backup" deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins).

In Bright Hope, the film moves slowly and without purpose: it lets us cotton to the rhythms of the main cast - also crucially consisting of Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a local with a broken leg and a no-nonsense, highly capable wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons), and unpleasant dandy John Brooder (Matthew Fox) - and bask in writer-director S. Craig Zahler's enthralling oddball way of writing dialogue: imagine Deadwood without the pentameter, and you have a good approximation of it.* The plot creeps up on the film subtly, sneakily: Purvis is in town but the opening scene has left no mark on him, and the scenes of characters resolutely stuck in quotidian conversations much outnumber those of characters doing things. When Purvis (in prison, with a bullet wound), Samantha (tending Purvis), and Nick (guarding Purvis) disappear, even that fact arrives at the film in a confusing, slantwise way.

The longest portion of the film is a four-way character study, as Hunt, Chicory, O'Dwyer, and Brooder follow a tip from a Native American expert (the one who stops the film cold to explain that the mysterious tribe that probably kidnapped the trio is not like other Native American cultures, and should not be read as a commentary on all Native American people, and so on: it would be more appreciated if it felt in any way sincere) to go through the desert scrub to find this lost race. Zahler doesn't kick up the pace; the fuse is still burning. Cinematographer Benji Bakshi shoots the scrubby location (Southern California playing the part of New Mexico or Arizona or some such) with sandy flatness, leaving everything hot and yellow (even the blue sky is a very yellowish blue; technically I suppose that makes it "green", but it doesn't feel that way) and miserable. The characters snap at each other. Still the film movies with a steady, unforced pace - almost 90 minutes of the 132-minute feature have gone by before the "action" starts.

That's a brave gesture on Zahler's part, and by God, but it pays off. Bone Tomahawk, though you could hardly tell from anything I've written so far, is a horror film in its heart of hearts: the glacial slowness of the opening half-and-then-some is all a means of lulling the audience into a dazed state, using the glaring cinematography to suggest the weariness and sweat of the characters, and making up the actors to look pretty ragged and battered too (especially Jenkins, invisible behind a bristly old-timey beard). One's reaction to the film absolutely depends on finding this kind of snail-paced cinema captivating. Zahler's heightened, circular dialogue helps, by giving the film a charge of the uncanny even before anything remotely uncanny has actually occurred. Russell and Jenkins both help as well, giving absolutely terrific performances: Jenkins especially is a miracle in a nothing part, alternating between wisdom, inquisitiveness, confusion, and moral steadiness, all in the matrix of a Walter Brennan-style grizzled old-timer. Then again, Wilson and especially Fox are rather thin in their parts: Wilson's bigger problem is that he's not going for the old-fashioned cadence that the film demands with the abandon of other three, Fox's is that he's so preening as to feel like a caricature. And while the other characters are types, they're not caricatures.

Still and all, there's something mystifying and magnetic in the film's menacing stillness, if you're into it; it starts to pay off fantastically when the soundtrack starts to pipe in impossible, animalistic vocalisations in the far distance, and the movie finally switches over to horror. It's laid the groundwork extremely well by that point, turning some fairly standard-issue "this is creepy" visual and auditory signifiers into something almost dreamy, thanks to the lightly soporific state the film has hopefully left us in by that point. Then, of course, the cannibals actually show up -it's a pretty close approximation of Cannibal Ferox or The Mountain of the Cannibal God from here on out, though with much less of a fixation on gore effects. But compared to any Italian cannibal film, Bone Tomahawk has put so much energy into building up its characters and understanding their values and approaches to life that it possesses a moral spine that every single one of them lacks.

Granting that, I would be a liar if I claimed that there's some rich vein of thematic meaning. Ultimately, Bone Tomahawk goes no deeper than any much better than average Western: it's about codes of masculine American behavior that a great many other films have also been about, and only Russell and Jenkins's especially focused commitment to their portion of those codes sets it apart. But the film at the level of pure experience is absolutely tremendous in every way: its a perfect display of tonal and atmospheric control, disquieting and dark even in the blazing sunlight at first, viscerally horrifying later. It's a most distinguished horror film, with literate writing expressing interesting characters and a vivid, fleshed-out setting. The end result may be your basic "arrogant civilisation brought to its knees by The Wild" affair, but it's so confidently executed and completely unexpected as to give even that unbearably musty theme a new sharpness and insight. It's the definition of "not for everybody", but it's essential for the patient and adventurous horror aficionado.