Bone Tomahawk is easily the best horror western I have seen – admittedly not an overcrowded field – since Antonia Bird’s Ravenous (1999). But it is also undone by one big problem.
Let us begin with the good things, before I point out the glass is half empty, throw the rest in your face and smash the glass.
Kurt Russell is finely grizzled, tough and thoughtful as the Sheriff, and Richard Jenkins, playing his not-exactly-the-sharpest-tool Replacement Assistant Deputy, is as engaging as I have ever seen him. David Arquette does a lot with the little he is given to do, and neither Patrick Wilson, as the broken-legged husband, nor Matthew Fox, as the wealthy loudmouth Indian-killer, who make up the rescue party manage to mess it up. The four of them would not be out of place in a Joe Lansdale story. Nor would Sean Young as the mayor’s wife, the real power in the small frontier town of Bright Hope. (Just realised that the image I’ve chosen shows off an earlier cast, which also included Jim Broadbent at one point.)
Bone Tomahawk is (mostly) well-constructed, with some very nicely written passages (the flea circus bit is especially good, if undermined a little by the exchange of looks at the end of it). For a brief while it even looks like the film might give Lili Simmons, as the wife, something to do (it does not). The unmistakably western landscape is also intriguingly unfamiliar. Most of the graphic violence is well done, with really effective sound effects. And there are some nice little touches, undwelled upon, such as how exactly Simmons’ character knows how many Troglodyte males there are in the clan. Indeed, in some respects it is the kind of solid B western and a solid little horror movie – and not so committed to the latter that it forgets to also do the former – that might tempt one to call it Lansdale-ian.
But there is that one big problem. And the film is really conscious of it.
You simply cannot tell this kind of story – the kind of abduction-by-injuns story that goes right back to Protestant settlers’ captivity narratives – without relying on a very long history of racist tales and depictions of native Americans. Bone Tomahawk does what it can to not be racist. It seems sincere about it. It creaks and groans in places with the effort.
And at least it doesn’t have Adam Sandler in it.
But it fails.
Perhaps this kind of story is always doomed to fail in this respect.
Bone Tomahawk begins with two westerners doing unspeakable things. Brutally, with inadequately sharpened knives, they kill men in their sleep so as to rob them. This is supposed to work, I think, so as to encourage us later not to judge all native Americans by what the set-aside inbred clan of savage pre-human Troglodytes do. Indeed, the Troglodytes are even given a mutation that suggests they might actually not be human but some isolated evolutionary spur (they resemble the diseased islanders of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Immortan Joe and his warboys, The Descent‘s subterranean predators, the nuclear mutations of The Hills Have Eyes). Certainly, the well-dressed, assimilated native American who refuses to go along on the rescue mission – he does provide the rescue party with information about where to find the Troglodytes, but with a quite admirable fuck-all-y’all, y’all-gonna-die kind of attitude – regards the Troglodytes as some kind of Other, just as the good townsfolk of Bright Hope might regard the robbers as utterly different from themselves.
But sadly none of this is sufficient to separate the Troglodytes from deeply racist stereotypes, or the film from siding with colonialist expansion into the American west. (And one of just two black characters is brutally slain the moment he wanders in front of the camera – but not eaten, because the cannibalistic Troglodytes, I think the explanation went, have no time for black folks. The Mexican characters fare no better.)
Which is not to say that the film lacks interesting potential.
With the only other native American assimilated into white culture, if spikily unforgiving, the Troglodytes – coated with white ash, accoutred with skulls, bones and tusks, wielding weapons made from sharpened bone – possess a spectral quality, despite their blunt materiality. They return as the repressed bad conscience of genocide. They scalp deputy Nick in front of the other captives and cram his scalp into his mouth, symbolically forcing him (arguably) to take back just one of the many slanders against native Americans that came from the mouth of white colonisers.
That the Troglodytes themselves cannot speak – they posses a mutated larynx and a boney, more-or-less sealed second mouth in their throats, through which they whistle and howl – communicates volumes. They are the subaltern. They are destined, it seems, never to speak. Nor, sadly, to win.