Is S. Craig Zahler a White Supremacist?
*Spoilers for the films Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cellblock 99, as well as the novel Wraiths of the Dying Land.
I am baffled by the critical praise for author and filmmaker S. Craig Zahler.
His debut feature, 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, has a 90% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 72 on Metacritic. His follow-up, 2017’s Brawl in Cellblock 99, has a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 79 on Metacritic. His 2013 novel, Wraiths of the Dying Land, has received glowing critical praise as well and is set to be adapted into a film by Sir Ridley Scott.
While I am frequently confused by a film or novel’s success, in the case of S. Craig Zahler’s work, I am, quite frankly, disgusted. Not only are his plots plodding, his dialog stilted, and his characters shallow and unmemorable; there is a seething undercurrent of racism and misogyny in his writing that I find repulsive.
Let’s start with Bone Tomahawk. A horror western, its story revolves around a group of Anglo-Saxon men on a mission to rescue one of their wives from a tribe of troglodyte savages who collect scalps and consume human flesh. The threat of rape hangs uncomfortably heavy over the film. “Just think what they’re doing to her!” one character breathlessly exclaims to the woman’s worried husband.
The film ends with our Aryan heroes rescuing the woman and slaughtering the savages. “Fairly regressive,” you might think, “but hardly damning.”
So let’s move on to Brawl in Cellblock 99. The protagonist of the crime-thriller is Bradley Thomas, an Ango-Saxon male with a shaved head and a giant cross tattooed on the back of his scalp. Bradley is never shown attending church or saying or doing anything particularly Christian, (he’s a drug dealer who hurts innocent people and threatens a man with brutal rape) so one can only assume that his cross is less of a religious symbol than the cultural marker of a white nationalist.
The plot of the film revolves around Bradley’s attempt to rescue Lauren, his pregnant (and white) wife from the Mexican drug dealers who have kidnapped her and the Korean abortionist who will surgically remove the limbs of their unborn child if Bradley does not kill an inmate in a super-max prison. Considering that most abortions are carried out vaginally, and the medical procedure would be performed without Lauren’s consent, one could argue that she is being threatened with sexual violence as well. The film ends much like Bone Tomahawk, with Bradley slaughtering the malevolent minorities and saving his wife’s and baby’s lives.
Are you starting to notice a pattern?
Wraiths of the Dying Land, also a Western, revolves around a band of Anglo-Saxon men on a quest to save their daughters and sisters from the vile Mexicans who have forced them into sexual slavery. To Zahler’s credit, the posse also includes a creepy Indian who is obsessed with eating the eyes and brains of animals so as to gain their knowledge and a friendly black man who cooks for our heroes and is referred to as “the negro” more often than he is by his actual name.
You’ll never guess how it ends.
It’s pretty clear that S. Craig Zahler has a formula for his fiction. Irredeemably evil minorities + damsel in distress threatened with sexual violence+ heroic Aryan(s)+ violent climax= jackpot!
What’s more, Zahler’s protagonists frequently make racist comments. Matthew Fox’s character in Bone Tomahawk openly despises Native Americans, proclaiming a desire to kill as many as he can. Not only is his genocidal bigotry given a sympathetic motivation, his entire family was slaughtered by tribespeople, but he actually gets his wish, killing a troglodyte in combat before succumbing to his wounds. Vince Vaughan’s Bradley in Brawl in Cellblock 99 starts a fight with a gang of Mexican inmates by proclaiming, “Last time I checked, the colors of the flag aren’t red, white, and burrito.” Most egregiously, several of the protagonists in Wraiths of the Dying Land are proud Confederate veterans, who say things like, “Most Mex’cans stay up late. That’s why they’ve got them afternoon naps,” and at one point sing a song with the following lyrics: “The muskets flashed upon the barbican/The thunder of Confederate pride/A hand with a union cuff of blue/reached down like the greedy claw of a Jew…”
Is this really what critics want? I hope so, because they’re getting more of it. Zahler’s next film projects are Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a slasher film in which Nazi puppets commit violent hate crimes against Jews, African Americans, and gay people, and a cop drama called Dragged Across Concrete. It’s going to star Mel Gibson.