**** out of ****
(for strong violence and language)
Released: December 25, 2017 limited; January 26, 2018 wide
Runtime: 134 minutes
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Timothée Chalamet
Set in 1892 during the waning days of the American frontier, Hostiles is more than a Western. It’s a film about the American soul. The soul our country was born with. The one it was forged with. It’s a soul that became hardened, then tormented. It’s the soul that, in some ways, will be with us forever.
Hostiles explores the darkest corners of that soul, of our nation’s brokenness, but it doesn’t reduce America to its sins alone. This isn’t a strict indictment of white Americans, nor is it biased towards Native Americans. It’s a lament for both.
With an uncommon degree of insight and empathy, writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) doesn’t look back in judgment. Instead, with a daring level of courage and compassion that feels unmatched, he looks back with grief and grace.
He does so with a cinematic command that recalls the best of John Ford (doorway shots are a direct homage to The Searchers, as are several epic landscapes), but in a way where myth and heroism are replaced by melancholy and burden.
The complexity of America’s tortured spirit is embodied and incarnated by Christian Bale in the best performance of his career. Hell, it’s as good a screen performance as you’re ever likely to see. He plays Capt. Joseph Blocker, a U.S. soldier on the cusp of retirement. He’s seen brutality and carnage at the hands of American Indians, but he’s returned it in callous, equal measure.
The most malicious of them all is Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a notorious savage even by objective accounts. For Blocker, justice isn’t enough for someone like Hawk. He wants the chief to be shamed, mocked, dishonored.
Hawk is now old and dying of cancer. In an olive branch of benevolence, the President of the United States has ordered troops to escort Hawk from New Mexico to Montana, along with his son’s young family, where he can live out his final days and be buried on Cheyenne territory. Blocker has been assigned to lead that escort; the order disgusts and sickens him to the very core of his being.
Blocker and Hawk are cut from the same cloth, as respected in their own tribes as they are reviled outside of them. They lived and fought in a time when violence wasn’t just a way of life; it was all that was known. Doing “right” at its best still compromised integrity, requiring degrees of pain and suffering. These two men lived in a world that only takes.
If they symbolize the violence perpetrated upon this land, and they do, then Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie represents the land itself: abused, beaten, damaged. Ravaged and taken from, in body and spirit. She is the sole survivor of a family slaughtered by Indians, but that carnage – vicious as it is – was just another skirmish in a much larger conflict between Natives and Whites. They are the hostiles. She is the victim. So is America.
The other characters also represent different parts of the scarred American psyche: anger, guilt, and rage, but also charity, mercy, and hope. The ensemble is up to the challenge of humanizing these qualities in real flesh-and-blood people, not ciphers.
Rory Cochrane in particular stands out; known primarily for movies like his debut Dazed and Confused, the depth of shame and anguish he renders as a U.S. soldier is powerful, completely exposed and fragile, and is far more effecting than virtually anything you see lauded on the annual awards season circuit.
Indeeed, like Cochrane, this requiem is much more nuanced than its surface; its symbols and metaphors don’t even register as such. Blocker, for example, is not a simple racist. His closest bond is with a negro soldier (Jonathan Majors), one that he gave a chance when no other officer would.
The love and respect between the two is one of the film’s most moving virtues, (punctuated in a key scene of candid sentiments expressed toward each other, shared with humility, gratitude, and raw emotion). Whatever Blocker’s bigotries may be, they’re rooted not in mere skin color; they’re in experiences beyond his control, the kind that could overwhelm the best of us.
This humanity bears itself out as Blocker’s blind hatred for Native Americans is challenged over the course of the trek north, realizing that perhaps Hawk was acting out of what he saw his duty to be, to his nation, just as Blocker did for his. Hawk, too, is a different man than his own violent history. On the verge of death, he’s sobered by empathy. Their journey together becomes an odyssey, and a reckoning.
In various ways, and in powerfully wrought scenes, Hostiles has the depth of understanding to distinguish killing out of hatred from killing out of duty. The line between the two is tragically thin, and Blocker and Hawk are guilty of both, to be sure, but for each of them the duty came first. Drawing that distinction is vital because it’s not the case for everyone. That distinction is where vengeance stops and rectifying begins.
Men like Blocker and Hawk did vile things, ruthless things, but the world they were given required it. That does not justify their violent excesses or absolve them of their cruelties but, in their time, duty necessitated savagery. It’s in that context we must judge them, if at all.
Hostiles is a great American Western, but it’s also much more than that; it’s an American elegy. But then, as with movies like Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, and The Homesman, all the best modern Westerns are.