[Minor Spoilers Ahead]
S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk offers a glimpse of the direction American Westerns may have taken if they had bypassed the Revisionist sub-genre and taken all of its cues from Spaghetti Westerns. Equal parts technically brilliant and racially repugnant, Bone Tomahawk offers up the very worst of the Western genre’s xenophobia in a brutal package. In short, the film follows a posse on the hunt for a group of “troglodyte” Native Americans responsible for several murders and the kidnapping of one of the men’s wife. Led by Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), their journey into a hellish wasteland of atavistic brutality literalizes one of the Western genre’s main themes—the struggle between wilderness and civilization with the dashing, brave white men on one side and the cannibalistic “godless heathens” on the other. For a time, I legitimately thought that Zahler was building up to a major reveal that the “troglodytes” weren’t actually Native Americans at all but displaced white settlers cut off from a wagon train: the one “civilized” Native American in the film glowered “they aren’t really Indians” when approached for information about them; they cover their entire bodies with white make-up; they had advanced surgical techniques capable of implanting rudimentary mechanical devices into their throats which literally let them howl like wounded, rabid animals.
But alas, the “troglodytes” were in fact Native Americans, their eventual slaughter and destruction justified by their primitive behaviors (the less said about the scene where Sheriff Hunt tricks three of them into poisoning themselves with opium-laced whiskey, the better). If Bone Tomahawk had straightened out its racial politics I would have eagerly recommended it as a stark, effective piece of filmmaking. For his directorial debut, Zahler proves himself a capable controller of tone and mood, keeping things silent and still when lesser filmmakers would have amped up the drama with music or unnecessary effects. Most of the violence happens so fast it’s usually over before you notice it. If it hadn’t been for a bizarrely out-of-place scene where the “troglodytes” scalp, butcher, and disembowel a screaming prisoner, I would point out that the most violent moment in the movie takes place offscreen where a man has his shattered, infected leg set with a hammer. Zahler isn’t interested in thrilling you, he’s interested in disturbing and unsettling you. Tragically, with Bone Tomahawk he succeeded, but for the wrong reasons.