by Andrew Wyatt on Jan 25, 2018

Like all the director’s features, Scott Cooper’s bleak, slow-burn Western Hostiles manages to eke out rough success, despite the familiarity of its story components. Cooper’s works are consistently constructed according to durable, masculine formulae: the artist-cum-addict character study of Crazy Heart (2009); the small-town revenge tale of Out of the Furnace (2013); and the G-men-and-gangsters crime drama of Black Mass (2015). Hostiles is the director’s take on the hard-bitten Western, complete with an arduous cross-territory odyssey and plenty of late-19th-century rumination on the End of the Frontier. Based on an unproduced manuscript from the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (Missing; The Hunt for Red October), Cooper’s film positions itself as a corrective to the genre’s historical demonization of Native Americans and its glorification of the U.S. Cavalry. In this, Hostiles is hampered by both the neglect it exhibits towards its Native characters and by a moral arc for its white protagonist that feels distractingly implausible. On balance, however, the film is still a solid work of revisionist mythmaking, as somber in its overall tone as it is brutal in its depiction of frontier violence.

The film’s opening depicts a scene of white terror that echoes The Searchers (1956), although Cooper renders with ghastly explicitness the bloodshed that John Ford kept discreetly offscreen. In 1892, a rampaging band of Comanches descend on the remote New Mexico homestead of the Quaid family, ostensibly to steal horses, although the raiders proceed to pitilessly slaughter everyone in sight. Only Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, superb as usual) manages to evade the attackers by hiding in the scrubby forest, where she maniacally clutches her limp infant child — dead from a rifle shot to the head. It’s a grim, shocking prelude, to be sure, one that is pointedly consistent with the white settler's perception of Native Americans as murderous, marauding devils.

The whooping, war-paint-smeared Comanche raiders are so blatantly designed to play on hoary Western stereotypes that the opening almost feels like a provocation aimed at contemporary, liberal-minded viewers. However, Cooper quickly disrupts the disconcerting racial overtones by flipping the equation in the following scene. In this sequence, sadistic U.S. Cavalry Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and his men run down a fleeing Apache family, children included, as though the Natives were nothing more than rabid animals. Blocker believes himself to be a warden of American civilization — he pointedly reads Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul (in Latin!) — but his motivations are plainly racist and personal. The men under his command who perished during the various Indian Wars weigh heavily on him, as do the gruesome Native-perpetrated atrocities he allegedly witnessed. This contrasts with the deaths of the Native Americans themselves, whom Blocker and fellow soldiers such as Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors) admit to shooting, gutting, and scalping with enthusiasm. Woodson, incidentally, is a Buffalo Soldier — an enlisted black cavalryman — and the intense, brotherly affection that he and Blocker share is but one example of Hostiles’ sensitivity to the complex, personal idiosyncrasies of racism.

Shortly after Blocker returns to his post at a lonesome New Mexico fort, his commanding officer, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang), fills the captain in on his latest assignment. The captive Cheyenne chieftain Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is dying of cancer, and President Benjamin Harrison has decreed that, as a somewhat dubious gesture of goodwill, the chief should be allowed to pass away on his tribe’s sacred lands in Montana. Blocker has been selected to lead this 1,000-mile public-relations expedition, much to the captain’s palpable fury and disgust, and to the prim amusement of a progressive journalist (Bill Camp) who seems to have had a hand in the arrangement. Blocker indignantly threatens to resign his commission, but he ultimately assents to Biggs’ orders for fear of losing his Army pension — the only comfort, the colonel reminds him, that an old soldier can truly count on.

Blocker assembles an ad hoc unit for this humiliating mission, calling on Metz, Woodson, and a few greenhorns like newly minted West Point graduate Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons). Also along for the journey are the chief’s family members, who have been similarly languishing in an Army prison: daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), and grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). Blocker and Yellow Hawk have a history on the battlefield, and the cavalry captain makes it abundantly clear that he intends to make the journey as onerous on the chief as possible, purely out of spite. The ailing Cheyenne warrior is initially posed on horseback for a publicity photo, but once the party has traveled a few miles down the trail, Blocker forces the chained Yellow Hawk to keep pace on foot. The captain also announces that he won’t hesitate to shoot his Native prisoners if they prove troublesome, presidential orders be damned.

Not long after setting out, the band’s path crosses that of Rosalie Quaid, still hiding in the wilds after her ordeal and still half mad with gore-spattered fear. (The mere sight of Yellow Chief and his family sends the woman into a fit of hysterical screaming.) Blocker exhibits an uncharacteristic gentleness in dealing with Rosalie — she is a pretty white woman in distress, after all — and his respectful deference to her grief provides her with the space she needs to finally bury her child’s remains. Unfortunately, the Comanches who murdered Rosalie’s family are still lurking among the cottonwoods, and there is an anxious awareness that they will have no compunction about slaying everyone in Blocker’s party, whether white, black, or Cheyenne. Yellow Hawk contemptuously calls these bandits “rattlesnake people” and requests that he and his family be unshackled so that they can assist in the defense of the caravan. Naturally, Blocker isn’t having any of this, although later events do prompt him to reconsider whether chaining up half the party’s able-bodied warriors is such a wise idea.

Director Cooper foregrounds the way that the story’s unforgiving wilderness setting — splendidly captured in all its raw, lustrous glory by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi — blurs the borders that divide political, cultural, and moral factions. The film’s title and tagline underline the primacy of point-of-view in such definitions: Namely, whether whites or Natives are the “real” hostiles depends on who one asks. More broadly, the film establishes that such reductive labels are perpetually shifting and conditional. The harshness of life on the trail re-configures a taxonomy that, at least for Blocker, was recently composed of bright-line, racialized rules about Good Guys and Bad Guys. Formerly reviled Native Americans are abruptly re-classified as situational allies against other, antagonistic tribes — not to mention against conniving convicts, outlaw trappers, and hotheaded ranchers, all of whom plague the party’s journey at various points (and all of whom are white).

Cooper’s film asserts that white supremacy as a personal creed is not merely morally vile but also woefully fragile, crumbling with telltale ease in situations where sheer survival depends on trusting and cooperating with non-whites. (White supremacy as an American political institution is a touch more durable, but Hostiles is less concerned with systems than with the individual.) In Blocker’s case, his acceptance of his Cheyenne captives’ essential humanity proceeds slowly at first, only to accelerate rather unbelievably in the film’s final stretch. By Hostiles’ conclusion, the Army captain has evolved from a spittle-flecked racist who relishes murdering Native Americans to a sensitive egalitarian who deeply regrets his role in the U.S. Cavalry’s massacres. To his credit, Bale’s quietly ferocious and anguished performance is unfailingly credible in the moment, but Cooper’s screenplay never provides a sufficiently durable justification for this enlightened about-face.

Although the film doesn’t adequately sell Blocker’s character arc, it does frankly and aggressively tackle the way that racism — and racially motivated violence in particular — inevitably becomes a gangrene that eats away at the soul. Cochrane’s haunted, weary Indian Wars veteran and Plemons’ untested but morally centered officer provide resonant, contrasting examples in this respect. Master Sgt. Metz confesses how thoroughly and irreparably he has been undone by a lifetime of hideous violence perpetrated against Native Americans, while Lt. Kidder expresses his earnest resolve to never become accustomed to murder, even when it is carried out under the aegis of military service. Although the film’s characters don’t have the modern psychological vocabulary to put a label on posttraumatic stress disorder, they do exhibit a keen sense for the mental and spiritual price that is paid for racist violence.

Of course, there’s an undeniably self-involved quality to such moral preoccupations, in that the film’s primary interest lies in white racism’s effects on whites themselves. In contrast, the film feels frustratingly undernourished where its Native characters are concerned. Studi is characteristically excellent in the role of Yellow Hawk, relying on his unnervingly steady gaze and relatively minute changes in his countenance to achieve striking depth. The understated quality to the actor’s portrayal, however, is arguably forced on him by a script that gives neither Yellow Hawk nor his family much in the way of dialogue-based character development. A comparison to Dances with Wolves (1990), another white-centered revisionist Western about Native Americans, is apt in this matter. Kevin Costner’s film offered an unabashedly romanticized vision of Native life on the post-Civil War frontier, but its Lakota characters were generally striking, richly realized personalities. Hostiles, in comparison, is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the historical ugliness of its setting, but its Cheyenne characters are largely ciphers.

Like their white fellows, the Cheyenne men are permitted to ride to the aid of the womenfolk on a couple of occasions, offering a multiracial (yet still gendered) spin on the genre’s standard-issue abduction, captivity, and rescue myths. However, the viewer ultimately learns little about Yellow Hawk’s clan, beyond what can be gleaned from the Native characters’ sporadic, bone-dry observations on the events unfolding around them — dialogue delivered in authentic Cheyenne, to the film’s credit. The Native women are especially neglected, narratively speaking, serving primarily as vessels into which Rosalie can pour her forgiveness and magnanimity. This inattention is especially irksome in the case of Kilcher, who portrayed Pocahontas with such ethereal grace and sorrowful nuance in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). Her talents deserve a role that is much more substantial than what Cooper’s film offers her.

Hostiles is an unapologetically slow and sobering feature, befitting a story about a journey that is, for all intents and purposes, a funeral march. Although returning Yellow Hawk to his tribe’s Powder River lands before he expires is allegedly the whole point of the expedition, Cooper doesn’t much stress the urgency of this goal. The 1,000-mile trek to Cheyenne country is essentially a pretext for the film to dwell at length on how damnably ugly and cruel life can be, particularly when it is lived close to the bone, as it is by both the surviving Native Americans and the frontier’s white settlers. This is a dire and not particularly nuanced theme — existence is full of pointless suffering — but Cooper’s screenplay discerns how racism both exacerbates that suffering and call attention to its mad absurdity.

During a stopover in a dying stagecoach town, Blocker accepts a secondary mission to convey a condemned murderer named Wills (Ben Foster) to a hanging judge. This initially feels like a narrative digression, but is revealed as a crucial means for the film to elaborate on its ideas. Ironically, it is Foster’s racist good ol’ boy — who purportedly knows Blocker from way back when — who points out that the U.S. Army’s white-supremacist policies are just a flimsy cover for ordinary criminal violence. “We both know it could just as easily be you sitting here in these chains,” Wills smirks at Blocker. The prisoner further wheedles the captain in ways that highlight the dehumanizing effect of oppression on the oppressor. “Seeing all the things you seen, doing all the things you done,” Wills drawls reflectively, “it make you feel … inhuman.”

With a running time just shy of 135 minutes, Hostiles is the sort of Western that takes its sweet time, reveling in earnest, pause-laden exchanges about morality. Scenes unfold languidly as characters mull over their past and future, often while gazing out at the savage loveliness of the surrounding deserts, forests, and mountains. The film does feature some spectacularly vicious action set pieces, including a whirlwind horseback shootout, a muddy brawl in the pounding rain, and a nocturnal sortie that ends in a mass throat-slitting. Cooper composes these grisly, often chilling sequences quite marvelously, using the wilderness landscape and naturalistic lighting to fantastic effect. However, such eruptions of brimstone and bloodshed primarily serve to throw the rest of the film’s solemnity into even sharper relief.

Ultimately, Cooper’s feature derives most of its dramatic heft not from violence but from the emotional and spiritual aftershocks of that violence. These are revealed in the quiet moments when characters speak poetically of their fears, shames, and cast-iron certainties. While Hostiles never approaches the aching cowboy lyricism of, say, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), it is far less concerned with six-gun thrills or historical verisimilitude than with fuzzier matters of theme and mood. Said mood is overwhelmingly bitter, despairing, and exhausted, reflecting the characters’ preoccupation with the world’s capricious cruelty and their own incalculable contributions to it. “Sometimes I envy the finality of death,” Rosalie admits, “the certainty.” Whether the viewer finds this sort of existential gloom invigorating or wearisome may be a matter of personal taste. However, whatever its missteps, Cooper’s film is still an ambitious, gorgeous, and often moving realization of the grim, philosophically minded Western.

Rating: B-