“Things better work here,” Joan Didion once wrote, “because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” She was talking about California, the natural endpoint of Manifest Destiny, the place where the work of civilization could no longer consist (merely) of killing savages, the boundary between the old America and the new. At least, that’s how the narrative goes. But clear dividing lines exist only on maps, and not in reality, which is usually much messier.
S. Craig Zahler’s neo-western Bone Tomahawk understands this better than most films. Classic and spaghetti westerns are always about, or on, borders of one sort or another—between good and evil, or civilization and savagery, or even between beauty and bad taste. Bone Tomahawk, set in the very early 1900s, sits on a boundary between two centuries. When the film opens on a pair of cowboys slitting the throats of a sleeping posse and looting their corpses, you might assume it belongs to the older side, when the old, violent ways were still alive and kicking, when the west was still decidedly “wild.” So it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that we’re actually in the very early 1900s, a century removed from our own time. You half want the characters to trade in their stallions for Model Ts, just because they could.
But if the time is somewhat unusual, Bone Tomahawk is still, at its core, a classic western. The men of Bright Hope have left for a cattle drive, leaving behind an assortment of the town’s less competent cowboys: there’s Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), crippled and stuck at home; John Brooder (Matthew Fox), droll gentleman and “Indian killer” extraordinaire, for whom driving cattle is a tad proletarian; Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), capable, if a little too fond of shooting people in the leg; last, his “back up deputy,” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), a frail, fatigued, always hilarious old man. After Indians kidnap a coupleof townsfolk, these men venture out from civilization and into the frontier on a doomed rescue mission.
If this plot sounds a little hackneyed, it’s because the film itself is an examination of that standard premise, as well as a black comedy that by its end veers off into horror movie territory. It’s got a little something for everyone, which is another way of saying it’s designed to please exactly no one. But in a filmmaking era when movies are increasingly designed—focus tested and audience approved—to please, Bone Tomahawk is strangely refreshing for refusing us our simple pleasures, instead forcing us towards Zahler’s more acquired tastes.
This pattern is evident even from the movie’s first scene. Our pair of corpse looters, bodies fresh at their feet, begin to quibble–about the number of veins in the neck and about how many one should cut, about whether it’s better to sell a pilfered Bible to “some idiot” or keep it in the hopes of a little divine assistance, about all sorts of inane concerns—in dialogue that’s remarkably hard to pin down. It’s coarse in tone, but peppered with dry wit that might feel more at home on some foggy British moor than in Kurt Russel’s gruff mouth. For instance: “It’s like a tree fell on you,” one bartender boasts of his moonshine. “A redwood.”
The dialogue is one part of the film’s larger concern with frontiers, those places where a culture runs up against (and inevitably combines with) its opposite, that which it defines itself against. Genres have borders too, and Bone Tomahawk positions itself along the dividing line between several of them, as if to prove its point that boundaries are almost always artificial, and almost always porous. But the looters are poised on a border of their own, between the old century and the new, between civilization and savagery, aware that a wrong move could be dangerous, could even upset the whole foundation of the western territories. This is why, while crossing an ancient Indian burial ground, one of them feels the need to explain, while scratching his crotch with the butt of his gun, that backwards superstition “ain’t no concern of the civilized man.”
Normally he might be right, but in this case he’s dead wrong, likely because these Indians aren’t really Indians but “something else entirely.” That’s according to Bright Hope’s friendly neighborhood Native American, known as “the Professor” (Zach McClarnon), who makes it exceedingly clear that the kidnapping savages are a race unto themselves, or as he puts it, “a spoiled bloodline of inbred animals who rape and eat their own mothers.” If that sounds like an incredibly racist description of Native Americans, well, it is and it isn’t. On one level, of course it is, but on another it’s a wry acknowledgement of the genre’s tainted roots. The Professor’s inclusion might seem just a crude attempt to “balance out” the film’s depiction of Native Americans—one tribe of cannibals plus one Indian with a college degree equals one set of progressive racial politics, just like I learned in algebra. And certainly the film’s unwillingness to use the word “cannibal” (substituting instead the quirky, accurate, still vaguely racist “troglodytes”) could indicate an uneasiness with the sensitive subject of Native Americans in Hollywood—or, more precisely, Indians in westerns.
But the film actually wants us to feel this uneasiness, wants us to remember that, just as the history of American expansion is also the history of our genocide against Native Americans, so too is the history of westerns—the closest thing we have to a national mythology, stories of brave men who risk death to civilize the wild—also a history of racist stereotypes and ethnically insensitive casting. I don’t mean to be a downer here, and neither does the film—only to point out that there are two sides to every debate, or every border. This is why the film brings in the Professor in the first place, so that we can contrast him with the “gentleman” John Brooder. The Professor, if we’re to use the film’s loaded terms, is a civilized savage, while Brooder is just plain civilized, a man in the wilderness, out of place in a bespoke suit. But if Brooder is not himself “a savage,” he is the most civilized of the group, and is also, therefore, the most savage. The film, by including Brooder, insists that the distinction between the two terms is meaningless. Brooder is so good at the work of civilization precisely because he’s so paranoid and brutal; as he says, nodding at a makeshift tripwire, “any person that approaches a camp without identifying himself is either a criminal or a savage. If you hear a jingle, point your gun and shoot.” When this has deadly, but expected, results a few scenes later, Chicory laments that “Mr. Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of Manifest Destiny.”
Chicory offers another productive point of comparison with John Brooder. The latter often tells the others, “If you want to question my morals, do it later,” while Chicory points out that “there aren’t any to question.” All of the men on this journey are, in some sense, out of place, but Chicory most of all. A veteran of the Civil War, he knows more than any of his companions the violence men are capable of. But in his old age, he’s grown docile and peaceful—he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, just to save the kidnapped citizens. For Brooder, that goal is mostly incidental, an excuse to kill Indians, while for Chicory nothing else matters. Perhaps because he knows firsthand the hardship that comes with losing a loved one.
Before he leaves Bright Hope, Chicory lays flowers on his wife’s grave one last time. We see that she died in the late 1890s, which means that he’s mourning not only his dead wife, but the dead century as well. That date is not incidental—it’s a nod to 1893, to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis, the enormously influential idea that what we today know as “America” is the result of a couple hundred years of pushing west, past the boundary of the known and into uncharted territory. There’s danger there, certainly, but also freedom, from the strictures and structures of the past. Bone Tomahawk tries to push into that territory, to forge a path, even, for future travellers. This is perhaps why the last shot we get is of Chicory, looking back over the horizon, and dropping a single stone. It’s a mark of his presence, a sign that says “I was here,” and what’s more, does so without leaving a trail of corpses—hence his movement from tombstone to plain old stone.
It’s at this moment that we first hear music. The quintessential western flick bets its style on the right mix of sound—soaring, epic scores matched with cool, quiet badasses. Bone Tomahawk takes the exact opposite tack, following a party of four who take turns spouting beautiful nonsense, and withholding all music until the very end, so that the first note has the feeling of water in the desert. This is part of the film’s larger project of, essentially, fucking with genre norms. It proves that, like the border between civilization and savagery, or between old and new, the border between genres is less stable than we might like to admit.