LIVING IN A GRAY AREA: ‘BONE TOMAHAWK’ AND MORAL COMPASS

Set in a blazing hot desert, Bone Tomahawk opens with David Arquette’s Purvis slitting a man’s throat. Almost immediately thereafter, we meet his partner-in-crime, Buddy (Sid Haig), who lectures Purvis on the proper way to slit a throat by correcting Purvis’ flawed method on the dying body in front of them. Of course, soon thereafter the two are attacked by a savage native, and only Purvis escapes with his life. The blend of Tarantino-esque rambly dialogue and matter of fact violence is a perfect way to set the stage for this 2015 feature film debut of a director who would become a pretty controversial filmmaker within just a few years.

2015’s Bone Tomahawk takes some major turns into the horror genre and is influenced by a number of other films and film styles, but make no mistake about it, it is a tried and true Western at its core. Taking a familiar Western setup, it both follows the tropes and rewrites a few on its way to becoming a unique and well-crafted genre film that still has people talking six years later. While writer/director S. Craig Zahler has been tied to the justly maligned production company Cinestate and has drawn ire from critics for xenophobic scripts and pushing conservative ideals, this first foray into feature film direction remains his biggest critical success and perhaps least controversial film on the whole.

S. CRAIG ZAHLER

Before taking the dangerous trek across the desert with Zahler’s well-drawn Western archetypes, let’s briefly look at the filmmaker’s trajectory and the discussions surrounding his films, his personal beliefs, and how his worldview seeps into his work. His involvement with Dallas Sonnier and his production company Cinestate, first and foremost, is a fair reason to create some concern for some. While his ties to the production company may simply be that they liked his work and wanted to fund him, there are many who think the link between the two is far more nefarious.

To pair with his connections to Cinestate, he’s been a controversial figure when considering some of his decisions in casting and screenwriting, as well as their connections to some of his known personal beliefs. Despite his stated intention that he doesn’t wish to “express values” through his films, he writes explicitly racist characters, has teamed with the likes of controversial figure Mel Gibson, has written scripts about Nazis (well… Nazi puppets) killing Jewish people, and has received criticism for his lack of inclusion of non-white characters of consequence. While entire pieces on Zahler’s xenophobic tendencies, apparent or non-apparent conservative agenda, and other such topics could be (and, have been) written, moving forward from here, we’ll only look at these concerns if and when they are appropriate in the discussion of Bone Tomahawk, the subject of this piece.

BONE TOMAHAWK

At its core, Bone Tomahawk follows one of the most well-worn and time-tested formats, both for Westerns and other adventure stories: a band of heroes, some more heroic than others, embarks on a treacherous journey to save a kidnapped damsel in distress. In the case of Tomahawk, this damsel is Samantha (Banshee’s Lili Simmons) – the wife of well regarded and recently injured local cowboy, Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson). Samantha is the doctor’s assistant and an important member of the small town. Of course, this serves as the motivator for O’Dwyer and the town’s sheriff, Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), to form a search party to find Samantha – whom they believe to have been taken by cannibalistic savages referred to as “Troglodytes” by the locals. Among their search and rescue party are O’Dwyer and Hunt (naturally), as well as cocky Brooder (Matthew Fox) and one of the town’s deputies, Chicory (Richard Jenkins). The other deputy, Nick (X-Men: Days of Future Past’s Evan Jonigkeit), is suspected to be with Samantha, taken by the Troglodytes.

The inciting incident occurs when the local bartender comes to Sheriff Hunt in the morning after discovering the stable boy is dead. They soon discover that Samantha, Deputy Nick, and a prisoner she was tending to at the jail (Purvis, from the opening scene) are gone and, upon consulting with the rest of the town, the local Native American townsperson, whom everyone refers to as The Professor, explains that he suspects the Troglodytes kidnapped them, as all of the signs point to it. He explains that they are not like “Indians” that resemble him – while they may appear similar in look, they are inbred savages that the search party stands no chance against. He offers to tell them how to get to the Troglodyte camp, but will not travel with them because he does not wish to die.

As we see the characters develop, we see that each has a specific role, defined by their role in the story and their adherence to some of the standard Western tropes. Matthew Fox’s Brooder is a stone-cold killer, but his arrogance is his greatest foil. As expected, his hubris proves detrimental to him at times. He’s blunt, matter-of-fact, and an unapologetic bigot. The cocky cowboy whose ego is his downfall is one of the several classic archetypes that Zahler plays with in the film.

While the Sheriff is mostly a selfless, standard lawman hero and O’Dwyer is more or less a hobbled cowboy whose emotions have the best of him because it’s his wife who has been captured, the most interesting and entertaining character is Chicory, the backup deputy who is old and unable to actually do most of what you’d expect a deputy to do. His role in the party is of the wise man who appears weak, dumb, and useless, but proves sage advice and help when most needed. In addition to playing out Zahler’s version of this particular role, Chicory serves to provide some laughs and general entertainment, as well as a strong moral compass. And, for this particular viewer’s money, Richard Jenkins puts in one of the best performances in any film or genre in the past decade, perhaps longer.

The film is a strong, deliberately paced homage to the classic Western… until it’s not. When the horror elements of the film make themselves known, the tone, pace, and overall feel of the film become darker and quicker. Albeit, the change never feels unearned or forced, as the severeness of the Troglodytes’ savagery is spelled out numerous times in the film. From the moment the film turns, it’s all about survival and brutality. The brutality of the cannibal savages goes as far as to feature one of the most brutal executions any viewer is likely to see short of the “extreme” horror titles such as August Underground or the either of the Guinea Pig series. Of course, the search and rescue party must meet the savage level of brutality in order to keep up, so their actions are no less difficult to watch or stomach.

In other words, once the film becomes a horror movie, it remains a horror movie. The actions of both the civilized and uncivilized people are about as uncivilized as possible and the final moments don’t provide much solace in the face of the brutality, despite the insinuation that Hunt successfully martyred himself and the O’Dwyers are able to escape with Chicory. Somehow, the film ends with coexisting feelings of hope and heaviness. Lost lives, the darkness of man, the things humans are able to do to each other – these things seem to far outweigh the “happy” ending the film tries to give viewers at the end, but perhaps that is the point.

THEMES, THOUGHTS, AND CONCLUSION

While Zahler has been criticized greatly for his majority-white casts and lack of minority characters of consequence, it’s fair to say that the only Native American character shown outside of the Troglodytes is a respected town member, educated man, and one of the wisest characters in the film. Moreover, the character that displays the most racist and bigoted attitudes is not portrayed as a good character at all – instead, an extremely flawed character who could have been the story’s most skilled hero if not for his hubris. Thus, this film does have some value in this arena; however, there is a certain argument to be made about the manner in which the Troglodytes are depicted. Like much of the Zahler debate, the truth is far more gray than black or white… and no matter Zahler’s motives – of which I will not speculate – he surely likes to play in life’s gray spaces. Flawed characters make the reading of a film’s morality much more muddied, for better and for worse.

It does seem there may be a theme in the film that the civilized man can be every bit as uncivilized as the uncivilized man, especially in the film’s final act – though, also earlier, as shown in some of the actions of Brooder, including his abrupt slaughter of possibly friendly strangers met a lot the way. One explicit example is shown when they see two pregnant Troglodyte women with amputated arms and legs. While it seems likely that the Troglodytes did this to their own women, it feels equally possible that another group could have done this. This serves as a reminder of what humanity is capable of doing to each other. Other readings of this scene could easily point towards further dehumanization of the Troglodytes and placing the civilized man on the higher moral ground, so it’s fair to say that there are different thematic interpretations here and some are more problematic than others, depending on your views.

The complicated nature of the film’s morality is a positive thing for this reviewer, in that it’s a subversion of the clean and tidy endings that the Western genre seems to like most of the time, especially in regards to “the classics.” Zahler said he doesn’t wish to “express values” in his films, but it’s impossible not to inject some of your worldviews into your work, especially when both writing and directing. Nonetheless, the muddiness and brutality of Bone Tomahawk’s horror turn help to set it apart as a unique work within the world of Westerns. For this reason, it is a highly recommended film for those able to stomach some torture. If scenes of torture are too much for you, though – be warned that the final act is not for the faint of heart.

And, it can’t be said too many times… Richard Jenkins is incredible.

★★★

Thanks for joining us for WESTERN WEEK! Take a look at yesterday’s entry ‘JOHNNY GUITAR’: A WESTERN DREAM