Hostiles: Unforgivable, by David Bax
Scott Cooper’s Hostiles opens with a scene of bracing brutality in which a family of late-1800s plains settlers is slaughtered by a group of Comanche. Immediately following that is a scene in which a group of U.S. soldiers laugh and holler as they humiliate a Native American man. Hostiles continues in this vein for more than two hours, a parade of cruelty and brutality in which no one in the high profile supporting cast is safe; mounds of earth over shallow graves are left across the frontier like mile markers. Yet, despite it all, the film is grimly beautiful. Despite that, though, its moralizing and stabs at profundity are so superficial as to be insulting. Hostiles is as formally accomplished as it is dumb.
Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph Blocker, assigned by his superior officer (Stephen Lang) to escort a group of recently freed Cheyenne prisoners (including Wes Studi, Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher) to a reservation in Montana. Blocker’s handpicked squadron includes soldiers played by Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet. Shortly after departing, they encounter the lone survivor of that opening carnage, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) and, for lack of any better options, they bring her along until they can find a safe place for her to stay. I haven’t even mentioned the other character actors who pop in, like Bill Camp, Peter Mullan, Ben Foster and Scott Wilson.
Even more impressive than the cast is the fact that Cooper manages to highlight all of their talents, even in brief appearances (with the exception, perhaps, of Chalamet, whose star would not quite yet have risen at the time of filming and who, spoiler alert, isn’t around for very long). Hostiles is the rare “actor’s showcase” movie that doesn’t feel like a slog, maybe because it spreads the goods around so well. Every character is captivating in their own uniqueness (though I don’t envy the cast and crew who must have had to put up with the notoriously methody Bale whispering hauntedly for the entire shoot). What’s more, the aesthetics rise to meet the performances. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi breaks free of the muddled, gray, boring faux-realism of his past work (Black Mass, Warrior, State of Play) and opens his frame up to the wonders of the landscape, both that of the West and that of the characters’ faces. Over the decades, as it has become progressively easier and cheaper to shoot a movie in scope, too many filmmakers opt for the wider aspect ratio, hoping some unearned grandeur will rub off. Hostiles makes the case for its choice with every frame.
It’s been so long since the Western has been “revised” that I’m not sure the term “revisionist” means what it used to. In any case, Hostiles is a part of that tradition, viewing the old West not as the place where America grew and was nurtured like strong stalks of wheat but where it earned the bloodstains on its soul it bears to this day. Blocker and company aren’t on the road to glory but to perdition. Also, when they take off their Stetsons, they’ve got the most hideous hat hair.
Okay, so that’s the good stuff. Now on to the rest. Cooper clearly believes very strongly that he has something to say about the legacy of American mistreatment of the native population. I’m not sure, though, that he actually means what he seems to be getting across. Twice, in one conversation between Bale and Camp and a later one between Pike and an Army wife played by Robyn Malcolm, Hostiles brushes up against an interesting point about those with convictions on an issue and those with experiences with that issue. Yet Cooper’s unwillingness to follow this string leads to the impression that he’s excusing racism from those who have had unpleasant interactions with another race.
It only gets worse, unfortunately. As implied by those two opening scenes, Cooper takes care to point out that the Americans are as capable of savagery as those they name “savage.” Again, though, he seems to be tripping over his own polemic here, accidentally engaging in a morally bankrupt, “both sides are the same” type of argument that ignores that one group was the clear instigator and devastating aggressor of the conflict (hint: it’s the one we don’t describe as “native”). And then, finally, we’re apparently expected to see Hostiles as a dark, alternate universe Planes, Trains & Automobiles, where we pat each other on the back at the end and say, “Well, that was rough going for a while but we’re all friends now.” It’s harder to stomach than any dramatized massacre.