Too often, understanding of the western genre begins and ends with, “People talking like cowboys while using six-shooters to resolve their differences.” Unfortunately, this reduces a thematically rich and uniquely American genre to the level of a pantomime, the rough equivalent that deciding anything with a vampire in it has to be horror. Westerns, at their best, are about the line between civilization and savagery, about lawless communities that nonetheless possess order, and about hard men and women compelled, by honor or survival, to undertake tasks they don’t want to do. For me, the most evocative aspect of the western is the central question/paradox, “Can a place be civilized without destroying it?” So important to me is this theme, I will dismiss out of hand any western that doesn’t at least have shades of it.
Manifest destiny spurred western expansion, and with it came the romanticization of the west. Many writers used terms like “virgin” and “unspoiled” to describe it; sexist terms commonly employed to describe desirable brides. The implication, though, is that when men — white men, it should be noted, since Native Americans had been there for thousands of years — showed up, the west would be made lesser. It would be “tamed” — another term often used in a sexist manner — by towns, by law, and by the harbinger of the east, the railroad. The west was desirable, but built right into the concept was the acknowledgement that such desirability was ephemeral, and would be gone the minute it was “civilized.”
The most tragic victims of manifest destiny, are of course the Native Americans. The western genre’s big flaw in its early days turning them into the equivalent of orcs, Nazis, or Stormtroopers to be slaughtered by the bucketload by its heroic all-white cast. The revisionist westerns tended to overcorrect, showing them as principled stewards of the land tragically butchered by white barbarians carrying the veneer of civilization. Too rare are the films that showed Native Americans as they were: people. Complicated, conflicted people with concerns of their own. 2015’s excellent horror-western Bone Tomahawk doesn’t quite correct this, as the heroes are as white as can be and the villains are at least ethnically Native American, but hidden within is the awful choice confronting the natives of the frontier.
When the small town of Bright Hope wakes up to find their horses stolen, a stableboy brutally torn apart, and three townsfolk (including a deputy) abducted, their only evidence is a bone-tipped arrow. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) summons the Professor (Zahn McClarnon) to question him about the culprits. The Professor represents one survival tactic of a Native American in this world: he can try to assimilate. The Professor keeps his hair long and seems to be a respected member of the community, but he does have to put up with a bit of casual racism and seems to be the only Native American around. When he fingers the ones responsible, he outlines the other option, though he angrily insists that they are not Indians, instead referring to them as Troglodytes.
The Professor calls them an inbred family group of cannibals. They have no language, no culture. They sound like a version of the mutants in the Wes Craven classic The Hills Have Eyes, and when they finally appear on screen after more than an hour, they more than live up to the description. Though the Professor knows at least roughly where they are, he refuses to accompany the posse on the rescue, as anyone going along is pretty much guaranteed to be horribly killed. If anything, the Professor was underselling the menace of the Troglodytes. At first, they appear to be nearly supernatural, communicating only with unearthly, inhuman howls, and covered in white paint like nudist War Boys. They move like ghosts and strike with sudden, visceral violence.
Hunt, though, has no choice; duty compels him to undertake this task. Accompanying him are Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), a local cowboy hobbled by a broken leg whose wife has been taken, Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the absent-minded backup deputy, and John Brooder (Matthew Fox) a dandy who casually mentions, in front of the Professor, that he’s “killed more Indians than anyone here.”
The deliberate pacing of the film makes the violence hit much harder than it might otherwise. The knock against westerns, especially from modern audiences, is that they are almost perversely slow. They are environments to get lost in as much as they are movies to watch. Bone Tomahawk utilizes this slow pace, giving us time to meet the people of Bright Hope, including all three of those abducted, before putting them on the trail, so that we as the audience are attached to those who will inevitably die. Arthur’s broken leg takes up a lot of time, especially after their horses are stolen away in the night. It’s Arthur, the symbolically broken man, hobbled by his body and by his emotional attachment to his wife, who must play the role of the cavalry.
When the violence does arrive, it is beyond shocking. Bone Tomahawk features one of the most brutal murders I have ever seen, and I have watched the entire Saw series. The Troglodytes approach violence with the blunt-fingered ingenuity of a cruel child, and to them human beings are the flies they pull the legs off of. Their attacks often feature rape imagery, specifically bone weapons being forced into mouths for no discernible purpose. The females in their cave — the Troglodytes are always referred to as “male” or “female” rather than “man” or “woman” to underscore their bestial natures — are pregnant, dismembered, and blinded, with bones jutting from their eye sockets.
Carol Clover, in her incredible book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, dissects this kind of imagery in rape revenge films. It’s often forgotten that in the ur-example of the genre, Deliverance, the men are only on that canoe trip because a dam will obliterate the river entirely, “civilizing” it. The hillbillies are the natives who strike back against the figurative rape of their home with literal sexual assault against Ned Beatty. The Troglodytes are no doubt feeling some of the same pressure. They can’t hide forever, and as the land they live on disappears to white settlements and steel track, they reassert their robbed masculinity by penetrating flesh with bone.
The eventual showdown brings the film back to the themes of civilization versus savagery. Markers of civilization are shown as weakness, with the most “civilized” characters suffering the most egregiously. The only character who can help is one who commits a subtle act of cannibalism, extracting the bone device the Troglodytes embed in their throats to shape their bizarre cries. To arrive, he has already sacrificed the ability to walk upright like a man, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t see men — well, males — as prey.
Bone Tomahawk is an absolutely stunning film. Horror westerns are such a rare treat it’s tempting to embrace them just because of that rarity. With this one, there’s no need to grade on a curve. It’s an excellent movie featuring a great cast, and deserving of a wide audience.