Bone Tomahawk (2015)
It’s hard to un-see what I saw last night, Bone Tomahawk (2015) much like Under the Skin (2013) is one of those films with imagery so striking that a nights sleep just can’t shake off to be just another memory of a film. Where Under the Skin was pure sci-fi, this, Bone Tomahawk is a blending of horror and the Western, something that is rarely done. We’ve had the Gothic before in The Beguiled (1971) which had an effect on me, but not as strong as this more recent encounter.
I’ve tended to avoid genre mixes when it comes to the Western, such as Cowboys and Aliens (2011) feelings it wasn’t true to the genre and just plain silly. Still it’s only film and just having fun, a format where anything can potentially happen. So what made me change my mind when it came to Tomahawk? I guess its the combination of Kurt Russell and the idea that the fictional race of Troglodytes that we fear throughout the film. Having the same if not worse label applied to Native Americans which are now living among the town of Bright hope with. These are treated much the same as the classical Native Americans were treated, spoken of but rarely seen and from a distance when they are. Minimal broken dialogue when they have that luxury. Here the Native American’s treated as almost equal, seen as the professor (Zahn McClarnon) who still receives his share of racism.
There are of course comparisons to The Searchers (1956) which I have also been made, which I was looking out for. Where the original had two riders John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter there was an equal balance of racism against forward modern thinking. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) driven by racism that makes him either want to rescue or kill his niece (Natalie Wood) who has by the end is by the end if the film part of Scar’s Comanche tribe. In Edwards eyes she is no longer white, a squaw by no choice of her own is better off dead than alive. What makes him change his mind has long been questioned. Does love for her overwhelm him, has his 1/4 Comanche nephew influenced him, or has he grown tired of all the hate that is inside of him? I’m not going to answer that, I’ll leave that to you.
In the more recent film there are four riders, not the classic two who go in search of the doctors nurse Samantha (Lili Simmons) along with the deputy sheriff. The first thought is “Indians” who have captured them, until its proved wrong by the only Native American, whose knowledge puts the white people to shame, even though he dresses as a white man he still very much of his own race. They respect his knowledge, except for the only polarizing character Brooder (Matthew Fox) who is not ashamed to speak his racist mind. Much like that Republican candidate at the moment. Yet there is more anger to his tone as we learn more, he too has killed his fair share of Native Americans, as we learn with good reason. He fears he hasn’t killed enough too which is worrying the other men who have come to accept (more or less) the Natives as neighbours.A lot of water has gone under the bridge in this end of the century Western that is more concerned with doing the right thing that shooting aimlessly. The racism is about the racism in the genre and dealing with it in the genre that its contained within. Before we have to be confront with the genres biggest fears.
The racism’s counteracted by the others, mainly the older back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) the Walter Brennan of the film, his life experience gives him the licence to questions Brooders thinking that alienates him from the other three. Lead by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) who is ready for action but knows that the law is bigger than him. Very much a mature role for Russell who tends shoot first and think second. Here in his second Western role in as many films is a man if the world that’s prepared for action but know he has to follow it to enforce it. He may have the lead role but he doesn’t steal it from the other actors, he’s a team player which makes for a more balanced film. The Sheriff leads but doesn’t dictate to the others.
We first encounter the Troglodytes at the beginning of the film, it’s a black figure that delivers unspeakable gore (in a Western) we are left with a blurred image of what we believe we have just seen. Was it an “Indian” in disgiuse or caught at an obscure angle or for a few seconds not allowing us time to work out what the hell just happened. We don’t see these sub-human creatures until much later. However their presence is felt through out the film, we are teased all the time by their suggested presence. You can’t rest easy until Chicory cracks a line or rebukes Brooders.
There’s the added tension of Arthur (Patrick Wilson) whose wife has been kidnapped, comes with an injured man, limping around to the point that he might not make it. Also coming with a grudge towards Brooder who was once his love rival, he resents Brooders presence, who is there out of duty of care and feeling responsible. A gentlemen to a fault that becomes his downfall. No one is safe in this film, you can’t tell who is next for being killed off. It’s very open and unpredictable which makes it so engaging. The gore which I usually don’t go for, and isn’t find in the genre, usually the cruelty is off-screen or only mentioned by others. To see it happening, we are confronted by it and nowhere to hide.
It’s something I just can’t shake right now and maybe that’s the point which will probably stay with me for a long time to come. Maybe this is the film that will be see me more Westerns crossed with other genres, not to take it too seriously, to celebrate it and critique it. I’ve already accepted comdies so why not sci-fi, along with horror as I did last night.