Behind the Times: S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk

by Bryan & Heather

As often happens in the month of October, Heather was on the hunt for scary movies to celebrate the season this year. One evening Bryan mentioned a movie he’d been hearing about on various podcasts, a Western starring Kurt Russel called Bone Tomahawk. While we didn’t know the entire story upfront, we did have some idea that it was a dark, brutal period piece that somehow featured cannibals. Perfect for Halloween, we thought! In spirit, perhaps, but rarely have we been so perplexed by a modern horror film. 

Bone Tomahawk follows a posse of four men as they pursue a Native American tribe that has kidnapped a fugitive, a deputy, and one of the men’s wife. Fairly standard for the plot of a Western, if perhaps a dated one. Yet here, everything is dialed up to the max. This tribe isn’t just a Native American tribe; they are cave-dwelling “troglodytes,” shunned by other indigenous peoples, lacking any language, communicating solely through eerie howls, and of course sustaining themselves in their “Valley of Dead Men” with cannibalism. As befits such a horrific setting, the violence, gore, and general graphic nature of Bone Tomahawk’s story is not shied away from, with numerous maimings, killings, and other atrocities taking center stage–especially in the film’s third act when the posse finally reaches their destination.

And yet, both as a period piece and as a horror film, Bone Tomahawk fell utterly flat for us. As far as historical elements go, the film captures the material culture of the 19th century American West competently, yet few of the characters’ actions make any sense within their cultural context. The captured woman’s husband is allowed to join the hunters even with a broken leg, a “backup” deputy is also allowed to come despite his obvious unfitness for serious tracking & fighting, and the entire group never sets a watch on any night they camp, instead choosing to rely completely on a line of bells that should theoretically wake them up if anyone tries to infiltrate their camp while they all sleep. In what might be an attempt at subverting storytelling tropes, these two men are the only male survivors of the film, and the failure of this watch system ultimately sets up the conditions that allow the hunters to prevail and rescue their imperiled damsel.

Yet above all else, the specter of the unnamed troglodyte tribe looms over any consideration of this film, and for us it taints everything it touches. The choice to make the cannibalistic villains of the piece a native people would be insensitive in the extreme even if it didn’t include gratuitous gore and was made in the 1950s; this film was made in 2015! We can’t express the sentiment any better than Piers Marchant of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who wrote when the film came out that it was “the equivalent of having as villains a sect of Orthodox Jews, discovered to be sitting on piles of money and drinking baby’s blood.”

Furthermore, all this is in service of…nothing, really. Any horror film (and most films in general) worth its salt is about something deeper than just its scary subject matter. Morality tale, social commentary, even political commentary–the storytelling is in service of something bigger to strike a chord in its audience. Bone Tomahawk utterly fails in this regard, substituting shock gore for its absence. It cannot question who the real savages are when its natives are an embodiment of evil; it cannot be about toxic masculinity when that same masculinity results in the posse’s victory; it cannot even be a condemnation of imperialism when the whole conflict is incited by a random bandit running from the law into the hills. The icing on the cake was the insistence on tastelessly showing violence that could have been left to the audience’s imagination, likely for even more terrifying effect. The best example was when it is revealed through dialogue that the tribe keeps their pregnant women crippled and blinded. Horrifying! And totally unnecessary to include an actual shot of these brutalized women simply as a throwaway pan as the survivors escape the cave. Offensive is an understatement. 

For all these reasons, we cannot recommend Bone Tomahawk to anyone, history or horror fan alike. It’s a shame, really; the cast is truly awesome, sporting Patrick Wilson and Lost’s Michael Fox alongside the always-compelling Russel. We just wish they could have been used to tell any other story than this trainwreck.

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