While rarely hitting the commercial heights of pre-1970s Hollywood, the western has nonetheless continued to chart a long-running course of well-liked, entertaining films and television dramas well into the 21st century. The mythologised ‘Old West’ remains an evocative setting for all manner of genres, whether drama, comedy, action-adventure, or – as is the case with S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2015) – straight-up survival horror.
Structurally, this film is as old-fashioned as movie westerns get: a woman and a deputy are kidnapped from a small frontier town, leading the sheriff to put together a posse of men to rescue them from a tribe of Native Americans. The film, however, does not feature the usual sort of posse. It most definitely does not feature the usual Native Americans.
Westerns traded for decades in spurious narratives of ‘cowboys and indians’, enforcing a collective cultural view of white European settlers as wise, peaceful, and sophisticated people and Native Americans as thoughtless, primitive savages. Such portrayals had their origins in the real-life western expansion of foreigners across North America, and the narrative served their interests well. Of course it was all at the expense of the continent’s indigenous peoples, which is why such narratives are all-but-abandoned today. The western has been forced to change, and it is appropriate that it has done so. There remains a lot of damage done, perhaps not intentionally and largely without malicious intent but still over a long period of time via a genre that was at one point America’s most popular.
There is a kind of pulpy genius to Bone Tomahawk. Zahler clearly knows that he cannot trade in ‘cowboys and indians’ like the films of the 20th century. He cannot and should not treat Native Americans as some unidentifiable ‘other’ to be demonised and slaughtered. That in mind, what if he developed a new foe for the goodhearted cowboys that did not so prescriptively rely on one real-world ethnicity or another?
In Bone Tomahawk, the posse faces not actual Native Americans but heavily fictionalised and animalistic cannibals. He even takes the time to present a Native American character in the local saloon before the posse takes off, purely to reassure them that the mysterious assailants they will face are categorically not the same thing. Indeed, when this strange violent tribe make their proper debut it is as monsters from an out-and-out horror movie. It is debatable if Bone Tomahawk fully qualifies as a horror film, but it certainly trades extensively in that genre’s conventions and techniques. When the worst of the film’s violence hits, it is not only shocking and graphic but genuinely nauseating.
For all that Zahler’s film emphasises that the Troglodytes – as they are called – are not Native American, it cannot escape notice that in terms of narrative purpose and genre convention they are precisely the same representation of America’s first peoples that informed so many westerns of past generations. As the saying goes, Zahler gets to eat his cake and have it too. This is, all in all, a remarkably old-fashioned and stereotypical western, repainted so as not to offend. I am honestly still unsure how I feel about that.
The film’s best entertainment value is in its cast and its characters. Kurt Russell leads in full-blown pulp hard-ass mode, and is ably supported by Richard Jenkins as a comically doddery old man, Matthew Fox as an amoral but charming gunslinger, and Patrick Wilson as a determined husband insisting on joining the search for his wife despite a still-broken leg. Together they paint a rich and reassuringly familiar scene, one that will please the majority of western enthusiasts. The film is well shot and evenly paced, but yet that ambivalent aftertaste remains – does it avoid negative stereotypes, or does it secretly embrace them?