It’s 1892 and Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is ordered to transport Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a captured Cheyenne chief, from New Mexico to Montana so he can die on his tribal lands. Blocker is known as a ruthless “Indian fighter” and is a pure racist to boot, while Yellow Hawk played a similar role on the side of the people reluctant to yield their lands to encroaching white settlers. This odd couple (one in charge, one in chains) set off with a small band of soldiers (including Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet) on the 19th century version of a road trip and you know the drill—they encounter a variety of archetypal characters (most notably a white settler played by Rosamund Pike, who joins them on their journey), have various experiences, and learn life lessons.
Hostiles ticks all the boxes of a self-important, would-be epic, and sets them within a film that embodies the bleak=profound attitude so popular in highbrow television series these days. Surly antihero? Check. Agonizingly slow pace? Check? Complete lack of humor? Check. Insistently grim view of life, with lots of graphic violence and unnecessary cruelty? Check and check again. It seems that director Scott Cooper, whose demonstrated such a fine and human touch in 2009 with Crazy Heart, has decided that bigger is always better and real movies must be a painful experience for the viewer (I’d certainly classify his 2015 Black Mass as painful viewing, as well as a sadly wasted opportunity—who knew the story of Whitey Bulger could be made into such a boring movie?).
Some viewers will find no doubt find Hostiles to be truly epic and a profound statement on the human condition (it currently has ratings from 25 to 100, on a 100-point scale, on Metacritic), but that’s what makes horse racing. On the plus side, the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is absolutely stunning and pays tribute to the classic Westerns of John Ford and his contemporaries. In fact, the whole film is something of a tribute to the type of Western enjoyed unselfconsciously by audiences of a more innocent and ill-informed time, but given a modern spin by emphasizing the hardships of frontier life and the casual violence that serves as a backdrop to the characters’ lives. I’m not eager to hop into a time machine and experience frontier life in the 19th century, but neither do I believe that most people in that period lived joyless, humorless, lives. The materials conditions of life were certainly harsher than those enjoyed by the typical middle-class white American today, but since they didn’t have that standard of comparison, they were no doubt busy getting on with their lives within the only reality that they knew.
Had Hostiles gone after the basic assumptions of the Western, such as the inherent inferiority of non-Europeans and the subsequent right of white people to take their lands while claiming to be on the side of the angels, I might have been more impressed with it (and found its 134-minute running time more bearable). Cooper offers a few crumbs in this regard, but undercuts even those efforts by making a false parallel between a person serving as an agent of government-sponsored genocide and ethnic cleansing (that would be Bale) and a guerilla fighter resisting those efforts on behalf of the people who are the target of the genocide and cleansing (that would be Studi). I’d also be more impressed if the Native Americans in this film were actual characters instead of serving simply as the agents of redemption for the white characters. If you want to watch a really subversive Western, I recommend Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven, which is also a lot more fun. | Sarah Boslaugh