Bone Tomahawk is pretty bizarre piece of film-making, and not in the usual way that one might think. It isn’t so much that this film is stylistically constructed or so incredibly bad as to be baffling, but it takes on the strange task of telling a story that is functionally a Western, yet attempts to infuse a horror element in the last quarter of the film that feels tonally disparate from everything leading up to that point. It’s a strange combination of elements that doesn’t quite gel for a number of reasons, the most glaring of which is apparent from the synopsis.
This is the story of four men who must travel across the frontier on a rescue mission. Their town had been raided by a tribe of cannibalistic Native Americans who had abducted three of the locals as feeding stock. The sheriff (Kurt Russell), his back-up deputy, a local Indian-killing enthusiast, and the injured husband of a taken woman make their way across the plains, necessarily finding ways to get along amidst differing viewpoints.
The obvious issue to take with this set-up is the extremely racist portrayal of indigenous peoples in this film. It’s a play on an old savage archetype that has since passed into antiquity in respectable cinema, but the film tries to circumvent this by making the people seem inhuman in build and mannerisms, being entirely without a spoken language. There is even a scene wherein a “respectable” Native American goes out of his way to explain that these cannibals are not representative of indigenous tribes as a whole, but this rings pretty hollow when the basic plot construction consists of four White men saving a White woman from a horde of non-White racial scary-otypes. The attempted horror angle in the final quarter of the film not only feels tonally dissonant from the previous scenes of character building, but it also acts as a pretty transparent attempt to remove the humanity from an enemy whose inherent personhood raises incredibly problematic subtext.
And the unfortunate thing is that this film isn’t even entirely devoid of decent qualities. The four male leads are all well-acted and have recognizable personas and characters arcs that don’t feel like shallow archetypes. The script relies on witty banter and character tension to carry the dialogue in ways that don’t feel dissimilar to a Tarantino film. And director S. Craig Zahler has a definite eye for extended scenes, allowing painful and uncomfortable moments to play out in their near entirety to communicate character struggles to the audience.
However, despite the talent that is clearly behind the camera, Zahler is also the writer of this inherently problematic story that, while functional structurally and entertaining at moments, is offensive by its very conception due to its use of Native Americans as an antiquated plot device, and even worse, as horror movie monsters. It may offer platitudes and bend over backwards to assure you that that isn’t what you are watching, as it’s anachronistically progressive characters may consistently convey, but I think the film doth protest too much. Zahler may have a future career in directing, but this is a pretty offensive first outing for someone so clearly talented.