Bone Tomahawk: Supernatural Western

Posted: May 19, 2016 in film
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Bone Tomahawk, starring Kurt Russel, delivers on the basics—good, old-fashioned Western action—with an unexpected supernatural element. There is a cowboy, a sheriff, a deputy, and a damsel in distress. There’s plenty of horseback riding, shooting, and Btomheroics. And the script provides lots of witty, turn of the century dialogue. The theme, as I understand it, is your standard good vs. evil (or perhaps God vs. the Devil). In this case (spoiler alert!), some Native Americans (called troglodytes) make off with a criminal who had trespassed on their sacred ground, stealing him out of jail after Kurt Russel, the sheriff, had arrested him. In the process, they also kidnap the sheriff’s deputy and a healer (played by Lili Simmons as Samantha O’Dwyer) who had been treating the criminal’s gunshot wound.

The sheriff, his assistant deputy (Richard Jenkins as Chicory), the healer’s ranch-foreman, cowboy husband (Patrick Wilson as Arthur O’Dwyer), and a unrepentant bachelor with a mysterious past (Matthew Fox as John Brooder) form a posse and set off in pursuit. They eventually track down the troglodyte bad guys and rescue the healer after many difficulties, including being captured and imprisoned. The action is realistic, well-done, and nicely acted. There’s some very graphic violence, especially one horrific scene I’m not sure was necessary.

It eventually becomes clear the troglodytes are being controlled by an evil creature or spirit. This is related to the audience through the musings of the assistant deputy who reminisces about a flea circus and whether the performing fleas were alive or merely dead fleas manipulated by the circus operators. Other disturbing evidence is revealed supporting this fact, and the film does a great job (IMO) of creating a supernatural dread in its later third or so.

Surprisingly, after watching the film, what struck me were questions of diversity and racial bias. In one particular scene, after being tricked by the sheriff into drinking some liquid opiate from the healer’s supplies, the head troglodyte pulls the sheriff out of his cage, cuts open his belly, and inserts the whiskey bottle that contained the opiate (burning hot from the fire where it had been dropped). Understandably, the sheriff screams in pain. I wondered if this was in some way a bone-tomahawkdoctor11x17jpg-9b30a1_765wcommentary on the introduction of alcohol to Native Americans by whites, but I may be reading too much into it. Still, it was an imaginative and perhaps appropriately primitive symbolic act. The only other overt commentary provided on the racial question comes when the bachelor reveals his mother and sisters died at the hands of Native Americans and that he’d killed many of them in revenge, including women and children. His reason for the latter admission being even Native American women and children know how to kill. The assistant deputy attempts to question this rationale but is cut off by the sheriff.

As you might have guessed, the main cast of the movie is white. There are non-white characters: an improbable (given the period) Native American professor (Zahn McClarnon

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as The Professor) who appears briefly and two black servants, one of whom is murdered by the troglodytes. I wonder how the story would have unfolded if the professor, instead of merely offering dire warnings, had decided to join the posse. Would the bachelor’s hatred towards Native American’s change if he was to fight alongside one? Two Mexicans, possibly thieves, are gunned down by the posse one night when they are discovered walking up on their camp in the wilderness. There are also two Native American women who are described by the healer, and later shown, as blinded, crippled, and impregnated by the troglodytes. Given this treatment of non-white characters in the film, I was left wondering if this was simply more Hollywood white-washing (with the best roles given to Caucasians), or if some more deliberate message was being conveyed. In the end, the characters escape the troglodytes and notice the pregnant women on their way out. They glance at them in pity, but pass them by without any attempt to help or at least end their suffering. While I understand they weren’t yet completely out of danger, this seemed somewhat callous. Even the assistant deputy, the film’s conscience and moral voice, for once said nothing. The brief appearance of these violated women also begged the question—why didn’t the beautiful, white woman captive get the same treatment? It would have made for a much bleaker ending if she had, but also a more consistent one.

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