The American Western is perhaps the truest and most quintessential American cinema art form. Oh, I know, Hollywood is the world capital of film, and you could just as easily say Michael Bay films and big budget comic book movies are the most American form of cinema, but nothing has yet challenged the allure, staying power, and purely American scope of the Western, despite its fading ubiquity in recent decades.
Hostiles, Directed by Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Out of the Furnace) and starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike, with strong support from Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, and Jonathan Majors, is a darker take on the traditional format. Eschewing the idea of good guys and bad, the film makes clear from the outset, by pairing the brutality visited by both Native Americans and the American army on each other that no perspective is right or wrong. There is only personal vendetta, history, and the inner struggle that comes from sacrificing your humanity to war.
The premise is simple. Over his objections, Bale’s Captain Joseph Blocker must escort an Indian Chief (Wes Studi) from his prison in New Mexico back to his home in Montana, where he can die and be buried on his ancestral burial grounds. They are accompanied by a small squad of cavalry soldiers and Chief Yellow Hawk’s family. Along the way they encounter Comanche war parties, fur trappers, army deserters and finally, a stubborn family refusing a presidential cease and desist order.
Bale’s performance as Captain Joseph Blocker is minimalist. He attempts to project more through taciturn stares than actual words, and when he does speak it rarely rises above the level of a whisper. I can’t say it was a poor performance, per se, for he does indeed come across as a thoroughly damaged individual who finds it difficult to partake in simple pleasures. He would have fit in well in Westworld as a malfunctioning android whose emotion programming was on the fritz. While that can appear flat from a viewer’s perspective, there is certainly a challenge in executing such a subdued role. More is asked of Rosamund Pike, whose family is brutally murdered in front of her, setting her on a bloody journey across the west with Blocker and company. I think her performance as a strong frontier woman who is badly damaged by emotional trauma is much more powerful and dynamic, and I was disappointed the dialogue between her and Blocker was in such short supply. Their relationship is established through very small moments that tie together and build over their long journey, but I would have liked to see even one scene where they find some sort of common ground in their grief.
Wes Studi, an easily recognizable Native American actor who has turned in solid performances over the last couple decades, isn’t given much to do here, sadly. His role as Chief Yellow Hawk is somewhat thankless, as he’s left to issue sage platitudes in Cheyenne with English subtitles, and look nobly into the distance while initially suffering under Blocker’s racist antipathy before quenching the heat of Blocker’s hatred and turning him into a friend. While the movie does a decent overall job at injecting moral ambiguity into what used to be a black and white genre, it fails miserably in its depiction of Native Americans. This is perhaps unsurprising given the original script for Hostiles was written 30 years ago at some point in the 1980s, which isn’t exactly an era known for its forward thinking views on US – Native American history. While I can certainly see how the film is tonally rewritten for the modern era, it would have been nice to give Yellow Hawk more agency rather than making it all about Captain Blocker with Yellow Hawk there as a walking stereotype for Blocker’s benefit.
The film is beautiful, as any film largely located in the American west is almost certain to be. Ranging from the hot flats of New Mexico, the mesas of southern Colorado and canyons of Wyoming, to the sub-alpine and mountains of Montana, wide shots and a bold reluctance to turn down the color – as films too often do these days in a lazy attempt to make things seem dreary or depressing – the powerful landscape only adds to the overall melancholy nature of the film.
Assessing Hostiles would seem to hinge on whether or not the viewer believes Blocker’s emotional journey from a rabid, genocidal, anti-Native American racist, to a man who forgives, retires from the military and appears to take on raising a Native American orphan. I think it is probably believable. Like all conversion experiences, Blocker is changed through the power of Yellow Hawk’s humanity, and that of his family. And they are linked by the bond that comes from any group of people bound by struggle and hardship together. Their harrowing journey demands that of him. And yet, I’m left with an empty feeling at the end of the film. Maybe that’s the point. Or maybe the penultimate scene of the film, which robs the viewer of any sense of satisfaction or victory after two hours of suffering, is simply too much to get over. It further reduces the Native Americans (and most of the white soldiers) to mere props to serve Blocker’s emotional journey, which seems a little lazy to me. They literally have to stop halfway through the movie to load up on more red shirts before heading out on another away mission.
It’s difficult to render a verdict on Hostiles. On the one hand, it is beautiful, the acting is on par, and it’s an interesting exploration of the power of trauma, the long-term damage war visits upon its soldiers, forgiveness, and how broken people manage to put themselves back together again (or don’t). But on the other hand, it is relentlessly bleak and depressing, with no humor, outdated depictions of Native Americans, and there is never a moment of satisfaction that isn’t soon followed by something ten times worse to blot out any potential joy for the characters. One feels very drained by the experience, and maybe that’s the point, but it’s hard to ask an audience to submit to that and still call it entertainment.