A new traditional Western is somewhat of a rarity these days. You could say 2016 was the year of the subversive Western while 2017 didn’t offer much of anything for the genre. But then along comes “Hostiles” which sits somewhere between subversive and traditional.
“Hostiles” is written and directed by Scott Cooper, probably best known for his award-winning feature film debut “Crazy Heart”. The movie begins with the ‘traditional’ – a familiar but effective opening sequence showing a frontier family brutal attacked by a Comanche war party. The lone survivor, a wife and mother named Rosalie Quaid (played by an excellent Rosamund Pike), is left in a state of shock.
The story then moves to Fort Berringer, New Mexico. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has seen his share of frontier bloodshed. And while he tells himself he was justified by simply “following orders”, the killing has taken a toll. He reluctantly accepts a mission to escort an imprisoned, dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana tribal homeland on orders from President Harrison.
Bale and his handpicked soldiers set out with their Native American prisoners to make the dangerous journey north. Cooper fills this party with some good faces. Bale is outstanding with a ‘less is more’ approach and I’ve always enjoyed Wes Studi. But we also get Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach and current flavor of the year actor Timothée Chalamet. Pike joins them after her traumatized Rosalie is discovered among the charred remains of her frontier home. A blood-soaked pilgrimage follows with several characters forced to reckon with their past and present sins.
There is an interesting line “Hostiles” walks. On one side it openly recognizes the part bigotry and brutality played in American policy towards the indigenous peoples. On the other side it doesn’t insult Native Americans by portraying them as overly sentimental dramatic pieces. Walking that line is Blocker, disillusioned by the military he has blindly served and bitterly prejudiced because of the men he has lost in battle with the natives. He is the film’s centerpiece and while there are intriguing ideas about what he represents, I was just as much into his personal quest as a broken man in search of repentance.
“Hostiles” is a bleak and tough-minded movie. In Cooper’s portrayal of death and suffering neither discriminates and none of his characters are free from the sting whether it be during their trek north or from scars of the past. Cooper uses explosions of violence but he also allows for quiet meditative moments that aren’t without purpose. It makes for a slow burn which may not satisfy those looking for a more traditional western shoot ’em up. But as the group moves across Masanobu Takayanagi’s beautifully shot landscapes I appreciated the action as well as the contemplation.
Some of the responses to “Hostiles” have been curious. Many have criticized Cooper for his “white perspective” even going so far as to say the movie is an attempt to ease a nation’s guilt over their treatment of Native Americans. Those are dramatic stretches which tags the film with an unfair label. It never draws a broad equivalence between the motivations of the U.S. Army and the natives. Again, Blocker makes several references to his “job” which he knows is genocide. And the Army’s atrocities take various forms within the characters particularly Cochrane’s and in Ben Foster who appears later on. It’s even hinted at in the D.H. Lawrence quote which opens the movie — “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
“Hostiles” is unquestionably solemn and dour yet fittingly so considering the subjects it wants to explore. But at the heart of the movie lies a message of reconciliation and healing which is especially welcome during our current times of such division. The wonderful final shot offers us a glimmer of hope. It’s filled with uncertainty and it’s far from tidy. Yet it’s hopeful in a way that brings the film’s ultimate message to light.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS