I’M STILL NOT sure how I feel about Bone Tomahawk. I certainly didn’t hate it, I’m not even sure I disliked it, even though there is a fair amount to criticise. It’s not as though there is a lack of stuff to like but for some reason the film didn’t provoke any strong emotion from me at all, except for parts which invoked a mild disgust. I found myself more on the positive side, but not by much.
In Bone Tomahawk the town of Brighthope finds a number of its citizens missing, including the wife of Arthur (Patrick Wilson), bedridden due to a broken leg. After the disappearances, as well as a murder and the theft of some horses are discovered, a band is swiftly put together to attempt a rescue. The band includes the sheriff (Kurt Russell), his aging and talkative backup deputy Chickory (Richard Jenkins) and the enigmatic Mr Brooder (Matthew Fox) as well as Arthur, who joins despite being in near constant pain and being reliant on a crutch.
The film aspires to be a fusion of western and horror. Unfortunately, Bone Tomahawk finds its antagonist in native Americans. While the film goes to great lengths to try and set its antagonists apart from other native peoples by referring to them as Troglodytes, savages without language who consume men for sport, and has this confirmed by a Native American character, it is difficult not to find this mildly disquieting.
There is a long and problematic history of dehumanising native Americans for use as a cheap, genre-appropriate antagonist, and despite the lengths it goes to set them part, it’s hard not to be reminded of this. The narrative of the film, which essentially boils down to “Rescue the white woman from the cannibalistic natives” seems cringeworthy in this day and age, but the filmmakers’ efforts to avoid these problems seem unsuccessful at best and tokenistic at worst.
It is especially bothersome since what the film does to set these natives apart, portraying them as separate from native Americans as they lack language, are primitive socially, and barbaric savage cannibals, seem alarmingly similar to the stereotyped imaginings which were used to justify genocide against native Americans in the first place.
The majority of the film is spent following the rescue party as they search for the abductees. This should be the set up for some interesting character development, and there certainly is some. However, it feels a little shallow. There certainly are some reveals, and the characters do play off each other to an extent, but it really doesn’t feel particularly deep. Perhaps a film which had this element as more of a focus would have had more success, but as it is, it feels like the film didn’t live up to the potential. The characters, likeable as they are, feel as though they were generated by a computer programme, which allocated them one personality trait and one backstory element each and nothing more. Overall, this section isn’t bad, it certainly has interesting sections, but each of those sections have an almost tangible feeling of unfulfilled potential.
The film feels as though it is much more at home when it is manifesting its horror elements, which come from two main sources. The first is the sound design, which is used to tremendous effect to create a creepy sense of anticipation and dread. The second is the graphic nature of acts committed by the cannibals, which although we do not see any cannibalism. is still very hard to watch. Out of the two of these, the sound design is without doubt the best utilised of the two. In particular the sound of bone – scraped against or broken – is used a great deal to make acts seem far more unpleasant and jarring and disquieting than they would be otherwise. In fact, the use of sound as a horror element is so well done in this film, even though it may not be anything particularly new or innovative, it is so well executed that it elevates an otherwise underwhelming film significantly.
While it may sound as though I am being very critical of this film I wouldn’t want anyone thinking that I mean that it a bad film. It’s a film that I have mixed feelings on, and was somewhat disappointed by, but I certainly wouldn’t call it universally bad. It has elements worth being critical of, but one can be critical of elements of a thing without hating the thing as a whole.
Should you see Bone Tomahawk? I would certainly recommend it if the idea of a horror western intrigues you. Be aware it may not live up to all of your expectations, but it is certainly worth seeing if you are interested all the same.