Bone Tomahawk and the Essential Evil of the Horror Western

Is the "Horror-Western" an essentially racist genre?

I really wanted to love Bone Tomahawk, but this (very good) article on The Burrowers and revisionist westerns totally nails the glaring problem with it: namely, Bone Tomahawk is a movie that seems to go out of its way to point out how it’s not being racist… but it’s still essentially a pretty racist movie:

If movies like The Burrowers attempt to rectify this [colonialist] narrative by displacing the crime of abduction on kidnappers who are inhuman, all this does is reify the claim made by The Searchers: the settler still remains the primary victim, violation of Indigenous peoples is simply a mistake on the way to rectifying the original crime, and the barbarism attributed to natives is projected upon a mythical space.  The supernatural entities in The Burrowers, known by native nations, are also hypostatized versions of native tribes: they are also indigenous, though supernaturally so, and the colonial hinterlands remain hostile to settler infiltration.  Here we find a repression of colonial chauvinism, a sublimation of the colonizer-colonized contradiction, that is driven by the recognition that now it is morally wrong to characterize Indigenous people as kidnappers.  So the problem is these “other” savages, which exist in a mythic space, and that still represent precisely what the racists of the 19th century said that Indigenous peoples were: inhuman monsters, demonic pagans. Does it really matter if this film works hard to demonstrate that the enemy is not Indigenous when it represents everything that Indigenous people were said to be by common sense ideology in the period of westward US expansion?  And in this context, the abducted settlers are still the basis upon which moral practice rests: the entire film is motivated by their innocence, by the violation represented in abduction, and that this abduction is immediately understood (though wrongly) as performed by the colonized.

Basically, Bone Tomahawk and The Burrowers belong to a weird subcategory of 21st-century westerns that want to distance themselves from traditional “Cowboys and Indians” racist caricatures. But both movies do that only by substituting a supernatural indigenous evil in their place.

S. Craig Zahler directs Kurt Russell as Sheriff Hunt, who sets out to rescue three hostages from a mysterious tribe of attackers. Accompanied by a terrified husband (Patrick Wilson), a faithful old sidekick (Richard Jenkins), and a dapper thug (Matthew Fox), Hunt finds himself totally unprepared to face his horrifying enemy.

Even more than the subterranean creatures in The Burrowers, the “Troglodyte” monsters in Bone Tomahawk embody the mythic “Indian” menace. While the movie goes out of its way to make the Troglodytes as monstrous and inhuman as possible, it seems like there’s literally no “indigenous” monster that you can dream up that is more savage, more violent, less articulate, and less human than the mythical indigenous villains dreamed up by colonialism and old-school cowboy movies.

And that’s the elephant in the room, here: the genocide of North America’s indigenous people was justified, primarily, by dehumanizing its victims. Perversely, Bone Tomahawk‘s strategy for writing around those dehumanized victims of genocide is by creating something even less human to stand in for them. The distinction between Troglodytes and Indians is meant to be 100% clear because a “real” Indian, “The Professor” (Zahn McClarnon) tells us so, and because the Troglodytes live in caves instead of on the plains. Right.

Bone Tomahawk’s Troglodytes are animalistic, unevolved, a mutated sub-category of humanity. They’re murderously protective of their burial grounds. They slaughter white men and abduct white women. They’re physically formidable, but bewildered by guns and very susceptible to opium. Like The Burrowers, Bone Tomahawk points at its monsters and says, These are the real monsters, not the Indians. See? Even the Indians agree! But this gets tricky, because there’s nothing true about these monsters that’s not also a racist stereotype about actual indigenous people. (Cannibalism, savageness, horrific sexual violence, barbarism, primitive spiritual beliefs, lack/primitiveness of language, alcohol/drug intolerance… you name it.)

I’d really like to focus on the many positive artistic aspects of Bone Tomahawk–the script, the characters, the acting, THE GORE (holy shit), the suspense, the pacing. But I don’t know how to begin to praise a movie with this kind of glaring philosophical problem at its middle.

I think that this whole genre–the “Horror Western”–is an impossible fantasy. It’s an effort to dream up a frontier where white men struggle against an external evil without the burdens of colonialism and racism. But, because these white men are always the heroes of the story, I can never stop wondering what that external evil is supposed to be symbolizing, or standing in for, or just simply erasing. Can you?

I guess the essential problem with this genre is that it’s almost never centered around an internal horror. It might superficially acknowledge why the white protagonists are there, on the frontier, in the first place. But it seldom takes that external horror and locates it squarely where it belongs.

The one “Horror Western” that I can think of that might achieve that “internalizing” effect is Ravenous, in which the supernatural menace seems more essential to the process of conquering the frontier and less essential to the frontier itself–and, by extension, the frontier’s original inhabitants. But, then again, I’m a white person, so it’s probably not for me to say.

And maybe I’m not being entirely fair to Bone Tomahawk. It could be that I’m missing another layer of meaning hidden in its tone and structure. Maybe the Troglodytes are supposed to be a kind of satire of the 20th-century cinematic “Indian” villain. You wanted subhuman, barbaric savages? Well, here’s a nightmarishly exaggerated version of those savages chopping up Kurt Russell while he does a solid tribute to John Wayne! Enjoy!

I can imagine a case being made for Bone Tomahawk as a kind of post-colonial satire of cowboy-movie racism. The movie’s shift from its heartfelt, introspective Western odyssey to its brutal third act is so abrupt, so violent, so amazingly unlike anything you’ve ever seen—I can’t help but think that Zahler might be attempting to subtly subvert the same racist tropes he’s exploiting. Plus, there’s the fact that the credits roll over this retro frontier ditty, written by Zahler himself.

It’s also difficult for me to imagine that a movie that’s so well-made and well-conceived in basically every other respect is so willfully ignorant about its bad racist symbolism. (Seriously—if people won Oscars for cannibal movies, Richard Jenkins would probably be nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year.) This is a Horror Western that works excellently both as a character-driven western and as a horror movie that’ll scare the pants off you. Its four main characters intrigued and interested me, both as “people” and as deconstructions of iconic western archetypes. Its unflinching, sudden violence and drawn-out butchery are earning glowing reviews from horror fans and critics.

So, while I’d like to proclaim this to be an indie genre masterpiece, I can’t. Not because Bone Tomahawk is a failure, but because it’s such a brilliant success within its particular genre.

At its best, horror is supposed to expose and exploit our deep fears, insecurities, and secrets. It’s supposed to expose uncomfortable truths—cut to the bone, as it were. Bone Tomahawk certainly impressed me, moved me, and scared me, but it also made me despair for “horror westerns”—I think they might be a genre determined to focus our attention away from the real truth, the real heart of the matter, the real horror of the mythic American west.

Image courtesy of RLJ Entertainment
Mad Moll Green

Mad Moll Green writes in Los Angeles and Vancouver. She loves horror movies, comic books, and ironic spandex.


    I was having the same ruminations on the film, and I also was of the impression that there might be some sort of mean-spirited satirical undertone present; the monsters, which are very much ultra-racist caricatures at heart that evoke the spirit of 1970s exploitation horror such as Cannibal Holocaust, could be essentially representing the spectre of what White Man has conjured up in campfire tales and colonial propaganda to incite and wage war against the Natives, now coming back to haunt the shit out of them. But then, the film isn’t exactly doing a great job of giving those caricatures mythological/metaphorical significance. There is not much in terms of an allegory to be found, like the myth of the Wendigo as a symbol for insatiable greed in Ravenous, and it’s not exactly like Bone Tomahawk is a particularly subtle film that wouldn’t deign to throw such obvious subtext at the audience.


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