This is a cannibal film, also a Western and a horror movie, so it has something for (almost) everyone. Although a low budget work by a first-time film-maker, the film has been widely recognised for the excellence of the script and direction, and the characterisation by a team of top actors. And the graphic nature of its climax.
Bone Tomahawk is set in a small town in the last days of the Old West, a frontier society held together by a sheriff, Franklin Hunt, played by Kurt Russell (who managed to fit in a starring role in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight that year as well), with an understated calm and a brooding power. A drifter comes into town and Hunt shoots him when he tries to run from the saloon, necessitating Samantha (Lili Simmons from Banshee), who practices medicine, to treat him in the jail. She, the drifter and a deputy are all abducted during the night – the only evidence is an arrow in the wall, and a dead African-American stable boy. Who could have done that?
We assume Indians, but a Native American they trust, “the Professor” (Zahn McClarnon, from Longmire and Fargo), tells them these are not the “Indians”, or at least the ones with whom the American invaders have been at war. They are a tribe with no name, no language (i.e. less than human). The local Indians call them “troglodytes”, cave dwellers,
The Sheriff, his “back-up deputy” and comic relief, Chicory (Richard Jenkins from Six Feet Under and Shape of Water), the mysterious Indian-fighter Brooder (Matthew Fox from Party of Five and Lost) and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson from Fargo) with a broken leg that is fast turning gangrenous, set out in pursuit. Most of the film, until the climax when they meet the trogs, is more a road movie than a Western or a cannibal horror film. It’s four cowboys against the elements. On the long ride out to the land of the trogs, they come across two Mexicans and Brooder kills them, suspecting that they are scouts for a bandit gang. Chicory explains
“Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of manifest destiny”.
Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural ideology that proposed that the culturally and racially superior American settlers were destined to expand across North America. Inferior, backward, savage peoples were meant to get out of the way, or be exterminated. Even the horses were supposed to be racially intolerant. When the rest of the gang comes in the night and steals their horses, Brooder is incredulous that his horse would allow a Mexican to ride her.
Discrimination, be it racism, speciesism, ageism, ableism or any other, is never all-encompassing. Most racists don’t hate everyone, or at least not equally. The settlers in areas like the old West hated the ‘Indians’ for defending their lands, which the white men wanted. Even in the era when this movie is set, sometime in the late nineteenth century, some Native Americans like the Professor were accepted as, if not equals, at least semi-civilised negotiating partners, while others, who maintained their resistance, were considered bloodthirsty savages, and portrayed as killers, rapists and sometimes cannibals.
In this film, this second group is distilled into a people so inhuman that they do not even have language, which is often the first thing quoted in defining the supposed gulf between humans and other animals. They are accused of raping and killing their mothers and, worse yet, abducting and raping white women, requiring the gallant sacrifice of heroes such as depicted here. One of the party, Brooder, boasts of having killed more Indians than all the rest of the town put together. When pressed, he admits that not all were men, as Indian women and children can also handle an arrow or a spear, and he tells of losing his mother and sisters to an Indian massacre when he was ten. For Brooder, white vs red, civilised vs savage is no different to good vs evil. He is an absolute racist, but for what he considers good reasons.
Yet even these less-than-human troglodytes are racists – they left the black stable-boy behind, because “they don’t eat Negroes”. No explanation is given, and it makes no sense since, under the skin (of whatever colour) we are all red meat. Yet their refusal to eat black people paints the white supremacism of the others as less vile somehow – look, these brutal savages must be exterminated – and they’re racists too, so it’s OK for us to discriminate against them.
Of course, those we wish to destroy must be dehumanised, vilified, and preferably accused of vile crimes, of which cannibalism usually seems to be the leading contender. But there is little evidence of Native Americans indulging in the flesh of their victims, whereas only fifty years before the demise of the Old West, the Donner Party had tucked into the remains of the members of their party who had died in the bitter winter snows of the Sierra Nevada in 1846-47. When they ran out of corpses, they murdered and ate their Native American guides.
The film is written and directed by S. Craig Zahler who also wrote the music with Jeff Herriott. It is a tour de force, a modern film that manages to bring to life the Western, a genre that, like its heroes, does not ever seem to die. American Frontier scholar Matthew Carter points out that this story is
“informed by one of white America’s oldest and most paranoiac of racist-psychosexual myths: the captivity narrative”
In these narratives, civilised society is threatened by an evil outside force, and something precious (usually a woman) is stolen and must be recovered. In Bone Tomahawk, traditional narratives are challenged to some extent – the women are not passive, Brooder’s prejudice is challenged, the savages are motivated by the drifters desecrating their burial ground. But the heroes are white men, the story is told from their perspective, the fear of the outsider or alien (remember this is only a few years after 9/11) offers a stark binary which equates civilised with good and savage with evil. It is the myth that was used to justify manifest destiny and the genocide of the Native American tribes. The trogs are barely human – they are covered in white mud which disguises their humanity and they have whistles implanted in their throats instead of having voices, so they cannot be engaged in rational discussion. We see a prisoner scalped and then cut open while alive, to establish their monstrosity.
Their own women, we see at the end, are heavily pregnant, blinded and their limbs removed, so they are simply breeding machines for more warriors, a reference, intentional or not, to the way anti-Islamic propaganda depicts Moslem women as blinded by fundamentalist controls and their burqa.
But perhaps the Professor is the most interesting character. In Westerns, there were good Indians who were assimilated into the dominant culture, often assisted in spreading ‘civilisation’ (think Tonto in The Lone Ranger).
Then there were the evil Indians – the outsiders, vicious and merciless, uninterested in accommodating the invaders on their land, and often (although not always) portrayed as cannibals.