A few white ne’er-do-wells out in the desert of the American southwest stumble upon, and then desecrate, a small burial site. In retaliation, the nearby Native American tribe kills two of the drifters and tracks the last to a small settler’s town, where they abduct him as well as a sheriff’s deputy and a local woman nurse. The town’s sheriff then gathers a posse to go rescue them.
This is the premise of Bone Tomahawk (S. Craig Zahler, 2015), an independent film largely praised by fans and critics during its limited theatrical run as a gripping horror thriller. Indeed, the film is captivating even in its 132 minute run-time, building consistently toward its explosive finale. Much of the film’s thrill, however, stems from its exaggerated portrayal of Native Americans, which stands out as one of the more racially derogatory in the history of U.S. film.
The Native Americans of Bone Tomahawk are so hyperbolically evil and primitive that it’s unclear if they are even human. Their ghastly pale skin, their pre-Stone Age weapons (including the titular tomahawk made of bone), the bizarre music that plays when they appear, their apparent ability to appear and disappear out of thin air, and most of all their blood-curdling howl that is so loud and bizarre no human could possibly produce it, all combine to give off an impression that the Native Americans are some kind of supernatural beings, perhaps ghosts or demons. The four variably incompetent protagonists of the village posse seem utterly unmatched against these inhuman opponents—whence comes the film’s terror and thrills.
Bone Tomahawk is a clear illustration of U.S. cinema’s trend toward extremism as described by film critic Peter Biskind. By comparing two of Biskind’s books, we can see the gulf between what might be called left-leaning and right-leaning films growing increasingly wide over the 20th and 21st centuries. In the first book, Seeing is Believing (1983), Biskind explores the political landscape of 1950s Hollywood cinema. Films of that period were politically centrist and often valued consensus. Both leftist and rightist films of the time depicted a threat to society and showed that threat being overcome, but in the former the day was often saved by professors or scientists, whereas in the latter the military was often the ultimate hero. But at the end of the day, they both agreed that society was worth saving.
But in his more recent book, The Sky is Falling (2018), Biskind demonstrates how much this has changed in today’s films. More often than not, society is deemed unworthy of redemption, and the proposed solutions from left-leaning and right-leaning films have drifted far into the wings of extremism. In a leftist film like Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), there is no consensus, and there is no attempt to reach it. The capitalists are pure evil and the only solution is all-out warfare (depicted with such passion that we are apparently supposed to cheer as the aliens rip the human soldiers limb from limb, spraying blood everywhere). The threat of the film is society (i.e., eco-capitalism) itself. In right-wing films like Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015), on the other hand, the threat is mild government oversight and the misguided liberals who want to stop police brutality. Tom Cruise travels the world spraying bullets, causing explosions in major population centers, and kidnapping world leaders—except, somehow, he’s our beloved hero, not a terrorist who should be locked up in Guantanamo Bay.
The point of this lengthy tangent is to illustrate how U.S. films have, over the last 60 or so years, veered off into the realm of political extremism, and Bone Tomahawk is one such film. What we most certainly do not see is an attempt to talk peace or compromise: perhaps a mild punishment for the men who desecrated the burial site and the return of the two kidnapped bystanders. The rescue posse does not even conceive of the idea; the only solution they consider is to ride in with guns blazing. This is typical of right-wing vigilante films, like Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), where violent reprisal is the only option and those who suggest taking the perpetrators peacefully to court should be ashamed of themselves.
This is especially egregious in the racist portrayal of the Native Americans. As mentioned before, the tribe is depicted like a group of bizarre Lovecraftian alien-men, monsters who should be slaughtered without a second thought. One can’t help but be reminded of today’s hyperbolic, fear-mongering rhetoric pertaining to supposed hordes of colored people that will be overrunning our borders and destroying our cities at any moment. It’s perhaps a sign of how accustomed we’ve become to extremist rhetoric and storytelling that most fans and critics watch Bone Tomahawk without even noticing it.