Does the latest revisionist western get it right or wrong?
The new revisionist western by Scott Cooper hasn’t been wowing either critics or audiences. A glacially paced old-fashioned epic full of predictable violence, Hostiles has been criticized for its failed attempts at political correctness, its poor character development, its melodrama, its inept directing, and its sluggish, funereal pace. Personally, I think it’s one of the best westerns ever made and that the disconnect comes from the film’s unique ability to stir different feelings in each viewer.
It’s a hard time and place to build a life, with the potential for violence and death (in various forms) seeming to hide behind every rock and tree.
A perfectly cast Christian Bale is magnificent as Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier stationed in New Mexico Territory in 1892 who has made a career of slaughtering Native Americans (including innocent families), who in turn are slaughtering white soldiers and innocent white families. It’s a hard time and place to build a life, with the potential for violence and death (in various forms) seeming to hide behind every rock and tree. The stoic Blocker seems perfectly suited to this mad world, except that beneath the surface, this intelligent, spiritual man is consumed with hatred and pain caused primarily by watching so many friends die horrifically at the hands of Native Americans, but also by his own acts of violence.
One of Blocker’s most hated adversaries is Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a Cheyenne chief who has killed some of his friends and has been imprisoned at his base for the past seven years. Now Yellow Hawk is dying, and no less than the president of the United States has ordered that the chief and his family be released and escorted back to their home in Montana. Because of Blocker’s knowledge of the trails to Montana and of the Cheyenne language, he is ordered to lead that escort. Blocker is furious about the assignment, but is forced to carry it out.
The escort comprises four soldiers for Yellow Hawk, his children (including his son, Black Hawk, played by Adam Beach), and his grandson. On the first day of their long and treacherous journey north, they meet Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a young mother whose entire family (including three young children) has just been killed by a small band of Comanches. Blocker knows he can’t leave her alone in the remains of her home, so she joins the group. Rosalee’s initial horror at encountering the Native American family traveling with them will grow into a profound revelatory experience of humanization for both her and Blocker when that family proves to be understanding, kind, and sympathetic, hating those Comanches as much as she does.
But the journey has barely begun. As mentioned above, Hostiles is a very slow-paced film, and there is time for many thoughtful conversations (those with the Native Americans are all in Cheyenne) and beautiful scenes, punctuated by bursts of violence. Many enemies will be encountered along the way (including an American soldier, played by Ben Foster, who is on his way to be hanged for war crimes), and many lives will be lost before the journey ends. At its heart, however, Hostiles is not so much about Blocker’s physical journey as it is about his emotional, psychological, and spiritual journey, a journey full of pain and horror but also full of light and profound realizations.
This last observation is not shared by all viewers and is key to the different ways Hostiles is understood. Is the film just another story of a stupid white man being enlightened by some sympathetic but one-dimensional Native American characters? Is the film full of shallow characters who have boring conversations with little substance? Is the film just a revisionist (realistic) attempt to show how brutal life was in 1892? Or, worst of all, is the film guilty of conveying the message that savage Native Americans are always nearby, hidden, ready to kill defenseless settlers and take their stuff? Those Native Americans need to be controlled (that is, eliminated or assimilated).
The stories I heard when I visited Standing Rock in November of 2016 convinced me that white “settlers” really do still feel that way about Native Americans. That this could be true 125 years after the events in Hostiles, and that the film’s viewers, both white and Native American, could believe Hostiles is in its own way contributing to this view, makes me profoundly sad. What gives me hope, though, is that almost all Native American reviewers, and the film’s Native American actors, understand that Hostiles is not a film about Native Americans but about the journey of two white people. As such, the film’s respectful treatment of Native Americans is exactly right, correctly showing the horrific environment and difficult lives of Native Americans (including their treatment by the white settlers who have stolen their land) as a backdrop for a white man’s journey of transformation. While this does present some troubling questions (is it necessary to once again have a white male protagonist?), the film does not seek to avoid the brutal reality of the time.
The other key piece for understanding Hostiles differently is the way the extraordinary performances of Bale, Pike, and Studi allow much of the film’s dialogue to remain unspoken. Solely on the basis of spoken words, these characters could be viewed as superficial, but so much is conveyed through facial expressions that I felt I knew these characters and their stories far more intimately than those in many other films. Because of that, I felt I was watching a very intelligent, nuanced film, full of rich observations and commentaries that went beyond its central plot.
Among those rich side stories: a strong woman learning to face her demons; a strong Native American leader doing the same; a Native American family whose unimaginable suffering doesn’t prevent repeated acts of kindness; the story of racism in its various forms; the story of forgiveness in unforeseen places; the story of hatred and how it can destroy us; and the story of violence and whether there is any way for human beings to avoid killing each other.
Hostiles isn’t perfect. Some dialogue feels anachronistic, some scenes of violence infuriated me (although the film does avoid, with one exception, the glorification of violence), and sometimes the film tries too hard to please everyone. But the acting is superb, the cinematography is gorgeous, the score is a classic, the writing is insightful, and the slow pace turns Hostiles into a poetic work of art, aided by the constant tension facing everyone on the journey. It is only when the film is interrupted by violent action that it faces the danger of losing its way. It was a dark, hostile time, and we continue to live in its wake, but films like Hostiles offer glimpses of hope and light that shine in that darkness.
Hostiles is rated R for strong violence and language.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.