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film review: Bone Tomahawk


Film review: Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk is the creation of one S. Craig Zahler who is listed in Wikipedia as a jack of all trades: “author, screenwriter, songwriter, musician, director and cinematographer.” Zahler’s concoction fits into a literary sub-genre known as ‘weird west’ – again thanks to Wikipedia we learn that this sub-genre “combines elements of the Western with another literary genre, usually horror, occult, or fantasy.”

Zahler is content to promulgate the myth of a violent, wild west, replete with cowboys armed with six-shooters and rapacious Indians bent on scalping the first settler they see. Unfortunately, the reality is that the so-called wild west was far less violent than what we see today regarding criminal activity. You can find late 19th century photos on the internet from places like Dodge City, sporting billboards that read “the carrying of firearms is strictly forbidden.”

Zahler’s chief desire appears to be out-dueling Tarantino for the coveted most in love with violence writer/director award in American cinema today. Indeed, he begins his magnum opus with Tweedledum and Tweedledee killers, Purvis and Buddy, who murder innocent travelers off the beaten path. Buddy, as you may already know, falls victim to a bunch of Indians who I guarantee did not exist in the 1890s when the film takes place (nor ever existed), and Purvis then makes his way to the town of Bright Hope, which was filmed at the Paramount Ranch.

This location has been used for years as a stand-in for a small, wild western town. Unfortunately, Zahler’s low budget prevented his crew from making enough alterations so that the town appears lived in. Zahler trots out a few stock characters including the sheriff Franklin Hunt (decently played by Kurt Russell), his old codger backup deputy, Chicory, and John Brooder, a more intellectual “ladies man,” who attempts to summon the town doctor after Hunt shoots bad guy Purvis who can’t keep himself from acting up at the local saloon. With the doctor drunk, Brooder finds the doctor’s assistant, Samantha, who has just finished a steady bout of lovemaking with her husband Arthur O’Dwyer, a foreman who’s laid up in bed with a nasty leg injury.

While Hunt, Chicory and Brooder investigate the murder of a stable hand (the usual “dispensable” black guy), Samantha, Hunt’s regular deputy Nick and Purvis are found to be missing back at the jail. Instead of summoning help (perhaps in the form of military personnel), Hunt forms an unlikely posse including Chicory and Brooder and is talked into allowing O’Dwyer (who can barely walk with his injured leg) to trek through the wilderness, hoping to locate their missing compatriots. O’Dwyer’s love (or should I say lust?) is so great that he’s willing to crawl through the desert to find his lost Samantha.

Before they depart, an arrow found at the jail is examined by a local Native American wise man who links it to a place called “Valley of the Starving Men,” where a group of troglodytes (cave-dwellers) is probably to blame for the kidnapping of Samantha and the deputy. The wise man (who sounds more like a professor at a local college), advises that the troglodytes are shunned by normal Native Americans and in fact are cannibalistic savages.

The next sequence (which is quite long) involves the posse heading for hostile territory. Along the way, Brooder kills two Mexican scouts and later the group’s horses are stolen by rustlers. O’Dwyer re-injures his leg after fighting with Brooder and is left by the rest of the group to recuperate (before insanely trying to rejoin them, again basically crawling through the desert).

I will not detail how exactly the posse ends up imprisoned in the troglodytes’ cave but suffice it to say Brooder is the first casualty. While Zahler perhaps technically cannot be accused of racism because he makes it clear that his troglodytes are an ostracized group of Native Americans, the introduction of these characters into the narrative, leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. First of all, these type of “savages” were never known to exist in the “wild west,” but are still associated here with Native American culture. All disclaimers aside, the mere image of Native Americans perpetrating ghastly acts of savagery on “white people” should be enough to upset any Native American when he ponders such “untruths” in a darkened movie theater. Of course the reality is that acts of savagery occurred the other way around—it was the US military of course which was responsible for the great numbers of heinous crimes against the Native American population during the 19th century.

The pointlessness of Zahler’s tale reaches its apotheosis when the audience is forced to witness the scalping of Nick the deputy and his dismemberment at the hands of the zombie-like troglodytes. If we must witness such cheap thrills, why doesn’t Zahler turn his zombies into a bunch of aliens so that the perpetuation of the myth of the savage “Indian,” is repudiated?

Perhaps with the dismemberment scene Zahler has gone toe to toe with Tarantino, and won. In addition to Zahler’s apparent victory over the master of gore himself, I am also forced to conclude that Bone Tomahawk defies its internal logic (how does O’Dwyer manage to get himself up into the cave with his injured leg? And why does Samantha remain apparently untouched by the savage troglodytes?)

Is there a more pointless film than Bone Tomahawk among the selection of Spirit Award hopefuls? I don’t think so.

Not only is it pointless but offensive to boot. See it at your peril!

Lewis Papier.