Dir. S. Craig Zahler. Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins
There’s nothing new, precisely, in Bone Tomahawk, nothing that you couldn’t alchemize out of John Ford and Wes Craven. O’Dwyer (Wilson) is a Christian who insists on praying before meals, crosses himself with a Catholic gusto (one of those touches which feels odd for the time and place, but whatever), and talks to God with the sort of ironic, scolding amiability that I usually associate with Tevye. When his wife is one of the three people kidnapped by an offshoot Indian band of primordial id-soaked freaks (“Troglodytes”), O’Dwyer gets on his horse, broken leg and all, in order to rescue her. No one tries to dissuade a badly injured man from coming. Sheriff Hunt (Russell) and his backup deputy, Chicory (Jenkins) are very much doing the Wayne-Brennan routine from Rio Bravo, and incredibly, it works; Russell has the brusque charisma to pull it off, and Jenkins’ meandering humor and propensity for meekness works in much the same way it worked in Burn After Reading. There is one Indian in town (Zahn McClarnon) who reports on these Troglodytes, and he is neatly dressed and has his hair tied back. He is self-possessed, removed. He does not rise to bait offered by local shootist Brooder (Matthew Fox), for example, but he also does not make himself the fifth member of a posse bent on returning Samantha (Lili Simmons), deputy Nick (Evan Jonigkeit), and unscrupulous drifter Purvis (David Arquette). He’s separate from them and he knows it. When we come across the Trogs, they are painted white from head to toe. One has boar tusks in his face. They all have unusual whistling contraptions lodged in their throats that give them an unnatural two-tone call; these are not so firmly rooted in their throats that they can’t be dug out by an enterprising fella with a knife. They have two women in their group, likewise entirely white, although they lie absolutely still; they have been blinded by wooden pegs still lodged in their eyes, they have no arms or legs, and they are aggressively pregnant. No doubt the standout moment of the picture, in the sense that I’ve been seeing it over and over again for the past few hours whenever I close my eyes, is the one where the Trogs kill Nick. First they scalp him. Then they shove an enormous pointed thing into his mouth. Then two of them hold him up upside down as he’s hacked in two. The Trogs are cannibals; one of them wanders around casually eating Nick’s leg like you see goofy kids eat turkey drumsticks at a carnival.
If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a bigger budget, or if one of those envelope-pushing Sams (Fuller and Peckinpah, natch) had the technology to get this sort of gore into their movies, then I think this would have happened earlier. I would probably have seen someone separated into his halves like sides of beef before. Bone Tomahawk is a very natural sort of evolution for the genres at hand, and Zahler has a knack for making them both work together. If you were to choose one socially regressive western from 2015 which has a big scene where Kurt Russell dies horribly, you’d do well to take Bone Tomahawk, which at least is shot like it wants to be a western (“Boy, let’s do a big old-fashioned road show in 70 mm with our movie that is primarily set indoors!) Zahler has an eye for blocking characters in a wide shot. I love one in particular where O’Dwyer is down for the count after he’s delivered a blow to Brooder’s handsome visage at the expense of his own broken leg. He’s on the ground, while Hunt stands over him and Chicory, who nursed in the Civil War, leans over O’Dwyer’s useless leg. Brooder, who has a reply guy’s sense of his own intellect and, more importantly, a libertarian belief in the justifiability of his actions, has made a crack about O’Dwyer’s wife; he’s been banished a little ways off, far enough that O’Dwyer doesn’t have to look at him. We see him, though. He’s standing there in the most arrogant outfit I’ve ever seen in a western, a mostly white and pale-gray getup that makes him as visible as a flare, and which stays impossibly clean until the action comes near enough to him that he can’t just shoot it down from fifty feet away. Zahler also has a sense of the distances covered and the distances to go, of how frightening someone can be when they are just far away enough that you cannot see their face properly. At his best, he’s not afraid to get his camera low. The low camera is there, looking up at Hunt and Chicory while the only parts of O’Dwyer’s body which are visible are his hands, squeezing and gesticulating. It’s there in the cannibals’ cave, too, looking up at the tusked Trog as he tries to figure out just how to use the repeating rifle the white men have brought into his cave. Because this is a first feature, one is tempted to use words like “instinctual” for Zahler, although it’s probably more accurate to say that a guy who wrote western novels is probably at least a smidge familiar with the movies, too. The horror we’ve chatted about already, a combination of scary and stomach-turning that speaks pretty loudly on its own behalf.
The newness of the movie’s primary engine to the director’s chair also bears out something else, and it is going to sound like an insult, and I only sort of mean it that way…There’s something very grad school about Bone Tomahawk, in the sense that it’s very knowing about what it’s doing. How else to explain a sex scene, where O’Dwyer scowls a little while his wife Samantha is on top? Let’s do this “the right way,” he says to her. She responds that she’ll try not to take that personally, but hey, the sex does seem to go better, his broken tibia and all, once they flip positions. I think it’s a joke. Patrick Wilson plays the scene like it’s supposed to draw a couple chuckles. Would I bet a hundred bucks that the scene was originally written with the intent to be funny? I would not.
The real double vision in Bone Tomahawk is not the mixture of the western with horror, but the mishmash of old-fashioned movie tropes and viewers who can adequately decode what those tropes were doing. In Stagecoach, John Carradine quietly puts his gun to Louise Platt, ready to kill her rather than let her be taken prisoner or raped or scalped by the Indians; the Indians, who never do crack the inside of that stage, are whooping savages equally competent to ride their horses at speed or fly off them. Nowadays, God willing, I think it’s even the default to recognize the sexism and racism, the paternalism and chauvinism, that inflects that picture. Hatfield’s Confederate soldier is ready to commit a premature honor killing. The portrayal of Native Americans is now textbook racist. In Bone Tomahawk, there’s so much DNA cloned from the old westerns: the Indians raid the town jail and make off with a woman, a prisoner, and a lawman, who must be rescued by the sheriff and his stereotypical team. It doesn’t take a genius to find The Searchers in there, or the anxiety at the end of Drums Along the Mohawk or, haha, Peter Pan. What takes more effort is deciding where the movie stands. Are the Native Americans of this movie so outside the traditional portrayal of that group that Zahler is merely skirting along the edge of the ruthless savage, or are they so animalistic and terrifying and inhuman (y’know, the way white Americans have talked about the Indians for four hundred years and more) that Bone Tomahawk simply finds a new way to depict the old racism? Is there anything revisionist about what O’Dwyer is doing, or is Samantha simply another woman with no purpose beyond the plot device? I come down on the second half of both of those questions. If Peckinpah had been able to split a guy in half, I think he would have done it. And I think Zahler has managed to make a western which is adamantly non-revisionist. It’s almost a relief, in a weird way. Watching Bone Tomahawk is sort of like watching Crawl, a movie which I’ve lavishly praised for only being about alligators as opposed to pretending it should be about some kind of social issue. But the baddies in Crawl are alligators, and the baddies in Bone Tomahawk are, no matter how horrifyingly inbred and alien they are, members of a traditionally marginalized group who have been the nemeses of the Western front, as it were, for four centuries. It’s remarkable to watch a movie that has pre-The Searchers politics this long after The Searchers. It’s remarkable to watch a movie that has pre-The Searchers politics that is also imagining what it would be like if there were a scene where Vera Miles mounted Jeffrey Hunter and he said, Land sakes, Laurie, t’ain’t natural to be fruitful in this position.
There’s a matter-of-factness to the violence in this movie, for the most part, that makes it hard to condemn that element outright. Blink and you’ll miss it when Brooder’s hand or Hunt’s finger are hacked off. Wilson’s screams of pain at his increasingly jacked up leg, which is definitely going to be amputated if/when gets back to Bright Hope, play genuinely. Maybe this is a low bar, but there’s nothing funny or hacky about Nick’s death. His agony lasts, and Zahler intends for us to know that it lasts, and the way it frightens and chastens Chicory, the way it inspires Hunt to tell him that the cavalry will come to avenge his horrific execution, is serious. The Trog women are the only exception to this campaign of fear Zahler is waging via the depiction of violence. For pure eyepopping disgust and horror, the way Zahler lingers on them rivals Nick’s ordeal. But they’re no more than a parenthetical to the story, and that parenthetical is enough to damage the credibility that Bone Tomahawk otherwise has in its violent moments.