First published in Sight & Sound, March 2016
Synopsis: America’s frontierlands, after the Civil War. Having murdered some camping cowboys, bushwhackers Buddy and Purvis stumble into a valley and a burial ground, where Buddy is killed. Purvis flees to Bright Hope, where he is wounded and jailed by Sheriff Hunt. That night, a man is gutted, and Purvis, Deputy Nick and town doctor Samantha are abducted. Native American ‘The Professor’ recognises an arrow belonging to a nameless tribe of savage troglodytes, located in ‘the Valley of Starving Men’. Hunt forms a rescue party with Samantha’s husband Arthur (whose leg is injured from an accident), experienced trailsman Brooder, and aged ‘back-up deputy’ Chicory.
Brooder shoots dead two Christian Mexicans who approach the camp, claiming they are scouts for a bushwhacking gang. The next night, bushwhackers steal the posse’s horses. On foot, Arthur falls further behind, his injury worsening. The other three enter the troglodytes’ Valley and, under attack, Brooder is killed. Hunt and Chicory are imprisoned in a cave with Samantha and Nick. the troglodytes butcher Nick for food. The prisoners trick three troglodytes into drinking opium. A troglodyte vengefully pulls Hunt from his cell and injures him severely, but Hunt uses his attacker’s bone tomahawk against him. Meanwhile Arthur, who has crawled his way painfully into the Valley, extracts a bone whistle from the throat of a troglodyte assailant whom he has killed, and uses it to lure out others and shoot them. Arthur rescues Samantha and Chicory. Hunt, dying, stays behind to kill the remaining troglodytes.
Review: “Riders comin’ in one way, savages the other,” says Buddy (Sid Haig) to his bushwhacking partner Purvis (David Arquette), describing, in the opening sequence to Bone Tomahawk, the no man’s land that they have entered between civilisation and the stone age, while also setting forth the tension that will come to dominate the film. Figuring themselves beyond the reach of morality or the law, these two ruffians have just cut the throats of some sleeping cowboys out in the wilderness, but as they search through their victims’ Bibles for any valuables, one camper, not quite dead, manages to let off a gunshot, and the report attracts a group of passing horsemen (signified by the noise of hooves and the dustcloud of their approach). Fearing justice or a less formal reprisal, Purvis and Buddy flee to rockier terrains, where they stumble, transgressively, into a burial ground. There, Buddy is summarily arrowed and axed by a shadowy figure, while Purvis retreats, in his haste upsetting a stone from a cairn.
This prologue to S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut sets out the thematic lines along which the subsequent story will divide or deviate. Like many an oater before it, Bone Tomahawk explores western history and identity across the fluid boundaries between criminality and the law, savagery and progress, sacrilege and faith. There is no question that, in comparison to the dark place which Purvis has just escaped, the small and significantly named town of Bright Hope where, eleven days later, Purvis ends up is, as local sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell) says, “civilised” – but here civilisation is relative. The welcome that Purvis, though unarmed, receives in Bright Hope is to be shot in the leg by Hunt (a habitual leg shooter) and jailed – the non-fatal injury only so that Purvis can live long enough to be hanged (in this respect, Hunt resembles the character recently played by Russell in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). Justice, Bright Hope-style, is still rather rough around the edges – and what is more, Purvis has unknowingly brought a bit of savagery back along with him into town, in the form of a vengeful raiding party. After murdering a black stable hand, these natives steal a string of horses and abduct from the jailhouse not just Purvis, but the Sheriff’s deputy Nick (Even Jonigkeit) and the doctor’s assistant Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons).
As Hunt leads a rescue party comprising anecdotage-afflicted ‘back-up deputy’ Chicory (Richard Jenkins), Samantha’s recently lamed cowboy husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and experienced trekker John Brooder (Matthew Fox), Bone Tomahawk appears to be following a trail already blazed by John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Certainly the Indian-hating bigotry of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is preserved in the character of trigger-happy Brooder, who, having witnessed, at age 10, the murder of his mother and sister by natives, has been indiscriminately killing indigenes – including women and children – ever since. Brooder’s xenophobia extends beyond the native population. For when a pair of strangers, armed only with crucifixes, approaches the camp at night, Brooder does not hesitate to gun them down in cold blood. “Mr Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny”, observes Chicory, wryly framing his companion’s actions in the ideological terms of American expansionism. Brooder insists that the two strangers were “scouts for a raiding party” – and one night later, the camp is indeed infiltrated by thieving bushwhackers – but the question remains whether Brooder has crossed yet another of the film’s moral lines (as Chicory expressly believes), and in so doing, only stymied the posse’s progress.
Brooder’s racist perspective is not, of course, the film’s, and it is offset by ‘The Professor’ (Zahn McClarnon), a dapperly dressed Native American resident of Bright Hope who is presented as a font of local knowledge in a desert of colonial ignorance. Introducing terms like ‘troglodyte’ that even the town mayor cannot spell, the Professor is quick to distinguish Hunt and Co.’s quarry – designated a “spoilt bloodline of inbred animals that rape and eat their own mothers” – as “something else entirely” from the Indians of his own kind. For the savage Other in Bone Tomahawk is no ordinary native, but a mythic monster which can be safely demonised by the filmmakers without fear of offending any real tribe’s sensibilities. These body-modifying, anthropophagous primitives are a convenient repository of straightforwardly bestial atavism against which all the other characters’ more or less human qualities can be measured.
“This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots. You’re idiots!” This line, addressed late in the film by an indignant Samantha to her male would-be rescuers, highlights the absurdity of riders deprived of their horses and depending for their salvation on a man so crippled that he cannot walk. For branded upon Bone Tomahawk‘s oater tropes is cluster-bungling of a decidedly Coen-esque stamp, as men’s quirks and foibles, as well as the more mundane aspects of life on the trail, are milked for sly comedy. The effect is greatly assisted by the verbal wit of Zahler’s screenplay, with one mannered zinger following fast upon another (Zahler also co-wrote the score, with Jeff Herriott). Yet as with his 2013 novel Wraiths of the Broken Land, Zahler is making extraterritorial incursions into genre of yet another kind. There is a hint of this in the opening scene, with the casting of two veterans of horror, Haig (Spider Baby, House of 1000 Corpses) and Arquette (the Scream series), in the rÃ´les of the outlaw cutthroats – and by the time that Hunt’s posse has brought things full circle, entering the heart of darkness in the location where the film began, there will be blood, brutality and gore of a kind that would make Sam Peckinpah or even Giulio Questi blush, no matter how much the good-natured humour jarringly abides to maximise its own – and the horror’s – edgy impact.
Bone Tomahawk belongs to the mixed mode known as ‘Weird West’. For in much the same way that Alex Turnder’s Dead Birds (2004), Grant Harvey’s Ginger Snaps Back (2004), J.T. Petty’s The Burrowers (2009) and John Geddes’ Exit Humanity (2011) respectively – and retrospectively – relocate cinema’s ghosts, werewolves, monsters and zombies in America’s pre-cinematic history, or that The Hateful Eight might be regarded as a postmodernÂ (p)refiguringÂ of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Zahler’s film too, when viewed in terms of strict historical chronology, anticipates and cannibalises the violent culture clash of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), set over a century later. Here horror takes pioneering form in oater territories, western revisionism looks forward to genres new, and the outrages and atrocities of the twentieth century and beyond can have their origins traced back to the very foundations of the Old West. This free passage between past and present is what lends the film its epic status, no less than the wide-open vistas.
When, in the end, one of Hunt’s rescue party restores to safer ground a white stone that he had raised as the only weapon that was left to him in cannibal country, he is not just marking a reemergence from nightmarish barbarity to striving humanity, but also rewriting the frontier, both between Bright Hope and the troglodytes’ ‘Valley of Starving Men’, and between one genre and another – in a funny (-strange and -haha) western landscape where it is all too easy to get pillaged, consumed or lost.