“Hostiles” by Scott Cooper is a paradoxically violent yet aesthetically gorgeous take on a Western classic. Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale, “The Promise”), a seasoned military leader with a history of killing Native Americans, is ordered to return a Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, “Penny Dreadful”) back to his ancestral land after being a prisoner for years. Blocker, who attempts to deny the mission, is forced to confront his prejudices towards Native Americans when it becomes vital that he and Yellow Hawk, whom he considered his enemy, must band together to survive the path home against the shared antagonist of the Comanches. This other Native group, known for being ruthless in their indiscriminate slaughter, including other Native Americans and Rosalie Quaid’s (Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”) husband and three young daughters, which is how the film begins. Within the first five minutes, bloodshed quickly ensues, a signal from Cooper that “Hostiles” wouldn’t be pretty or pacifist.
Set in 1892, the movie explores the after-effects in an American Western rural panorama. This geographical landscape has historically been wrought with genocide, racism and ruled by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, which was attempted to justify white expansionism during this period. Despite being evidently racist in past crusades against Native Americans, Blocker is treated with empathy from the audience, and Bale’s wide range of emotions in his performance support the emotional complexity of his character. Bale recovers from prior lackluster roles in his portrayal of Blocker: a stern military man transformed into an unwaveringly loyal friend to his comrades. Quaid also merits empathy, after she witnesses her family’s gruesome murder first-hand.
From an audience standpoint, it is impossible to side with the Comanches, for they are heartless, but Cooper could have made a greater effort to frame the Cheyennes as sensitive and empathetic. Instead, they are painted as completely secondary to Blocker and his white soldiers. The are depicted as “othered,” only with a lesser degree of savagery than the Comanches, and their purpose is truly a reference point by which the whites can try to practice being accepting and understanding. Per usual, the narrative, though wavering at moments, sides with the whites over the Native Americans. Though the message of overcoming racism is necessary to fight the common enemy, it didn’t go far enough. Even though Blocker’s defense of the Cheyennes in the end of the film redeems him, what does that say about us if we side with a white soldier who has participated in genocide and is only converted in the end?
What Cooper’s film excels in is its stunning cinematography of the American Western frontier. The rolling hills, sunburnt canyons and vast plains remind us of the potential to explore our own forgotten pioneer: a truly American conviction. Moreover, the way the tolls of war, specifically PTSD and mental illness, are finally acknowledged in cinema is refreshing.
The most provocative dialogue perhaps takes place between Blocker’s right hand man, Sargent Thomas Metz (Roy Cochrane, “Black Mass”) and Lieutenant Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons, “The Post”) which examines the way killing in war creates emotional numbness and how it becomes almost second nature, a feeling that Kidder fears. Had the film gone further in the emotional tolls of war and didn’t color the Native Americans as “the other,” “Hostiles” would have been a different film.