These days we tend to like our Westerns a tad messier than we did in the genre’s heyday. In the 60s and 70s, the “Golden Age of the Western”, the old west was seen as a place of opportunity, of white hats and black hats, where bullets just sorta make you slump over and there was a virtuous rancher’s daughter for everyone. These days things are more complicated and we like it that way. In the revisionist Westerns of today, the west is a place of omnipresent, gruesome violence and moral ambiguity. There’s poop everywhere, no one quite knows whose side everyone else is on, and the color of someone’s hat doesn’t mean a damn thing. Also, if this year is any indication, Kurt Russell is everywhere.
Yes, while you can see Russell as a gloriously mustached bounty hunter in The Hateful Eight in theaters now, you can just as easily see him as a gloriously mustached sheriff in Bone Tomahawk, Russell’s other foray into violent revisionist Western from earlier this year on VOD. I haven’t gotten out to see Hateful Eight yet, but it’s hard to imagine that Bone Tomahawk doesn’t feel like its low-rent cousin. While tons of low budget horror mashups in this style manage to overcome the limitations of their budget, Bone Tomahawk feels pervasively cheap, brought down by flat direction. It’s also desperate to fool you into thinking it isn’t as much of an exploitation flick as it actually is, which is the kind of dishonesty that routinely puts me off of this kind of thing.
Russell plays the sheriff of Bright Hope, a small western town beset upon in the night by mysterious raiders who kidnap several townsfolk. The raiders, we’re told, are members of an outcast tribe of natives who’ve regressed to brutality and cannibalism, and Russell assembles a band to rescue the kidnapped people. Among them are the humorously befuddled backup deputy, played by Richard Jenkins, a deadly but ambiguous gunfighter played by Matthew Fox, and Patrick Wilson as the husband of one of the kidnapped people, who insists on coming along despite a bad leg injury. The first 90 minutes or so mostly consists of our merry band making their way to the valley where the tribe is supposed to live, breaking on occasion to remind us that Jenkins is mostly senile at this point and how hilarious is that, and that Fox really likes shooting people and how badass and ambiguous is THAT?
Once they finally arrive, the film goes into full on cannibal exploitation mode with several gory deaths and Patrick Wilson getting a little “dweeby guy finds his manhood” arc A La The Hills Have Eyes.
What struck me most about the film from virtually frame one was that it just looks out-and-out cheap. Now, bear in mind there’s nothing wrong with a film -being- cheap, but it’s when it -looks- cheap that the problems start to arise. The camera work, lighting and editing are overall flat and unengaging, with 95% of scenes shot from a succession of medium shots that constantly keep us at arm’s length from the characters. Formally, everything has a flat, dull monotony to it, and I found myself wondering more than once if this was actually the pilot movie to the hot new miniseries on Starz or maybe Showtime. At the best of times, the direction in Bone Tomahawk is adequate. At the worst of times it’s artless.
When things start ramping up and the arrows and bullets start to fly, the action is almost impressively dull, lacking any sense of urgency or tension. Speed up the editing, move the camera a bit more, do SOMETHING to give the scene some life. I’ll be the first one to rage against overactive camera work and editing in modern action scenes, but the action in Bone Tomahawk is on the other end of the spectrum, tedious and dull when it should be tense and harrowing.
And that flatness really does nothing to help the art direction. A good director can make cheap (or at least average) sets look great, and a lackluster director can make them look even worse than they already are, and Bone Tomahawk’s S. Craig Zahler definitely does the latter. Most of the locales in the film that aren’t exteriors have this drab, constructed look to them, like motel rooms or model homes. They don’t look lived-in or real. They look like sets, which is the last thing you want a set to look like unless you’re Paul Schrader making Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. The absolute worst example is the cave where much of the final action takes place, which fails utterly to mask the fact that it was clearly built on a sound stage the week before.
Most of the actors put in these drab sets and boxed in by this dull direction are honestly doing the best they can. Kurt Russell is gruff and to-the-point and Richard Jenkins is endearingly confused and often steals scenes with amusing non-sequiters. Patrick Wilson, given the meatiest role on the dinner table, does well given that a lot of his performance is conveyed through pained expressions and limping. He’s a sympathetically hobbled underdog, one who’d clearly be out of his element even without the leg injury. Matthew Fox is the weakest link, the dull monotone he puts on in an attempt at sounding cold and ruthless mostly making him come across as some kind of robot, or maybe just bored.
And then there’s the exploitation angle. Bone Tomahawk doesn’t want you to think it’s an exploitation movie, one that presents a demonized version of Indigenous Peoples as cannibalistic savages, an exaggeration of the hooting wild men you’d see in Westerns of old. But that’s exactly what it is. The film is quick to identify its antagonists as outsiders from the other local tribes, extremists it dubs “troglodytes”. But you’re not fooling anyone, Bone Tomahawk. Unless we’re to believe that these people came over clinging to the back of the Mayflower, they’re definitely an indigenous people. At least half of them are played by indigenous actors, wear animal skins and face paint, and they live a tribalistic lifestyle outside of the civilized whites, who refer to them as “savages” or “Indians or whatever”.
The film even carts out its only speaking role for an indigenous actor just to reassure us that these people are outcasts from the local tribes as well, in a move that feels like someone who just got called out for making a racist joke showing you his one black friend on Facebook. It’s a “having your cake and eating it too” maneuver that I see exploitation movies making a lot. The baddie or exploit-ee is identified as an outcast or extremist from their particular group, so the film can present an exaggerated, demonized version of that group while not actually depicting them. It’s how Tommy Lee Jones can play a cartoonish, over-the-top version of an IRA bomber in Blown Away while not ACTUALLY playing an IRA guy, because he’s identified as someone who was kicked out of the IRA for being too crazy. And yes, that’s the only example I could think of off the top of my head, but there’s a ton out there.
Bone Tomahawk’s natives aren’t -actually- natives, although they are by every definition, and we’re expected to believe that that makes the depiction of an indigenous group as cannibalistic monsters OK. And if the film had at least leaned into it and just accepted that it’s a big, silly, kinda racist exploitation flick I could have respected that. From what I gather that’s basically what Eli Roth did with The Green Inferno, and while I’m no fan of Roth’s by any stretch, I respect a movie that’s honest about what it is, even if what it is is an offensive stereotype.
A lot of people apparently like Bone Tomahawk a whole lot, but as is often the case with well-hyped horror movies, I just don’t see it. My experience watching the film was mostly one of frustration and boredom. Oh sure, there’s at least one impressive gore moment but what I see otherwise is a tedious, blandly directed film that spends too much time bending over backwards to escape the exploitation label any sane person would stick on it.