Sunday, February 11, 2018
On the way out of Hostiles I was pretty sure I heard a woman say "It sucked." I wonder if she wanted something faster paced, a film that is as tense as the opening sequence in which the husband and children of settler Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) are killed by Comanches in 1892 New Mexico. Perhaps she wanted a film with more moral clarity, one in which the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is as much of a villain as those Comanches. If the Native Americans are villains, then that means that Cavalry officers like the racist Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) must be the heroes, right? Oh, for a simpler time. Hostiles, written and directed by Scott Cooper, is a Western that aims to interrogate the nature of the American project - specifically, the treatment of indigenous peoples by the government and military of the United States. Blocker, a veteran of heavy combat on the verge of retirement, is ordered by his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) to escort Yellow Hawk and his family from the Army's prison in New Mexico to the Cheyenne tribal grounds in Montana. Blocker's view of Native Americans isn't subtle as the film sets itself up: he views them as inferior and bears a particular grudge over the death of friends and fellow soldiers in combat. It is worth noting that also present as Blocker receives his orders is a journalist named Wilks (Bill Camp), the first of many voices to remind us that America's treatment of those who were here first involves a great deal of violence too.
The bulk of Hostiles is the journey from New Mexico to Montana, with Blocker and his party discovering Rosalie Quaid and bringing her along to safety. Christian Bale plays Blocker with a ruthless interiority, as a man with only the barest access to the emotions that the trip brings up. Blocker is capable of a gruff courtliness with Rosalie and of a necessary pragmatism when he decides to let Yellow Hawk travel without chains, a decision made after the travelers take casualties in another Comanche raid. Bale never foregrounds either Blocker's keen intelligence - he's capable of fluently speaking Yellow Hawk's language - or the sense of weariness from too many battles fought, and the film is better for it. The forward motion of Hostiles is all about survival in the moment, and the cliffs and valleys of the Southwest familiar from so many Westerns have never quite looked so threatening as they do here thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The romance of the West that we know from older films has no place in Scott Cooper's conception.
Also in the traveling party is Blocker's trusted second-in-command, a Master Sergeant named Metz (Rory Cochrane). We first meet Metz at the fort, where in a speech to Blocker (who is reading something in Latin) he envisions the own end of his career and reveals that he has "the melancholia". Later, Metz recalls his first kill to another soldier (Jesse Plemons) who has come straight to New Mexico from West Point. Hostiles is incredibly self-aware in the way it doles out reminders that white Americans are implicated in decades of warfare over Western land. Besides Metz there is also Willis (Ben Foster), a soldier convicted of murder whom Blocker agrees to transport from one fort to another along the journey. Blocker and Willis are old colleagues, and Willis wastes no time in reminding Blocker and us of past sins. Another officer's wife (Robyn Malcolm) gets a dinner table speech about the humanity of Native Americans. The effect of all this talk adds up, and by the time a Montana rancher (Scott Wilson) asserts that his property rights trump Blocker's orders the didacticism has undercut both narrative tension and Blocker's coming into his own as a man. Meanwhile Cooper largely wastes the charisma of Wes Studi, who as Yellow Hawk has little to do but stare meaningfully into the distance. (Adam Beach and Q'orianka Kilcher are also underused as Yellow Hawk's family.)
The ads for Hostiles call it "The best Western since Unforgiven". Both films share a concern with how violence serves authority, but Eastwood's natural economy as a filmmaker makes Unforgiven a more effective work. Unforgiven was of course not directly concerned with Native Americans, and while Cooper's ambition is laudable Hostiles works too hard to be about everything. Hostiles doesn't "suck" - it's too skillfully made - but it ends in the same place that it leaves Sergeant Metz, lost in sad ideas.