Scott Cooper’s grim, thoughtful revisionist western “Hostiles” opens with the D.H. Lawrence observation, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”
Its protagonist, Capt. Joseph Blocker, initially fits that diagnosis; he is not a hero, never was and never will be. He’s a cavalry soldier in 1892 New Mexico who has witnessed slaughter and survived with scars of his own. His enemies were not invaders but Native Americans standing against forced resettlement and extermination through the principle of Manifest Destiny, the notion that the United States was ordained by God to dominate North America.
While today’s historians equate that territorial expansion’s atrocities with what the Holocaust is to Jewish people, and slavery to African-Americans, Blocker interprets it differently. His job is to suppress violent resistance to the law of the land. He is an ice-cold enforcer prepared to maintain order by any means necessary. The concepts behind that assignment were not part of his job description.
Blocker is the kind of distressing, morally discordant antihero that Christian Bale can play like a Stradivarius violin. In “Hostiles,” we follow him through a tragic march of progression across a landscape of impending dread and grief. While the film is not a barrier-breaking melancholy landmark like “Unforgiven,” they share a mature, tight, grounded approach to heavy subjects and a critical commentary on hand-me-down western tropes. It’s not the film I was expecting, but I respected what it is trying to do.
Rather than being glorified, violence is treated as one of mankind’s original sins. The film opens with a barbaric sequence of a Comanche raiding party murdering the husband, two daughters and infant son of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). Following that, we encounter Blocker, famed for taking “more scalps than Sitting Bull himself.” Much to Blocker’s dismay, he’s ordered to escort the newly released Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana birthplace. Dying of cancer, Yellow Hawk wants to be buried in his homeland.
Blocker has spent his career battling the Cheyenne, whom he detests. Adding to his angst, Yellow Hawk killed several of his friends. But to pass the area’s Comanche bandits, Blocker grudgingly accepts that he must work with Yellow Hawk on the thousand-mile trek to the chief’s home.
Shortly after setting out, they find the traumatized and exhausted Rosalie still clinging to the baby’s body. Rosalie rides with the group to reach a distant rail line that can take her back to the safety of the East Coast. Along the way they pass visually impressive locations that evocatively capture the West’s ominous beauty.
The narrative is Blocker’s journey past a history he’s not much proud of, with Native American actors Studi, Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher (Bale’s co-star in “The New World”) providing a layered tapestry of resonant characters. Their part in the decades-long battles between settlers and natives is done. They simply want to move on, but Blocker is still internally at war.
Rosalie, who sees her traveling companions as separate from the Comanches who killed her family, emerges from her suicidal stupor and befriends the group. Between unnerving bloodbaths in which they all must work together to survive, a grudging respect forms between the parties. Meanwhile, Blocker faces a rising sense of personal remorse as his conscience begins to evolve. It’s a simplistic story line but an effective one.
Bale does outstanding work, revealing unexpected depths of intelligence and sensitivity. In one almost wordless, emotionally harrowing scene, he gives a private wet-eyed farewell to his most important friend, a hospitalized soldier (movingly played by Jonathan Majors) who is going downhill. It’s clear that there is an injured heart beneath Blocker’s stoic seriousness.
It’s unfortunate that the remarkably charismatic Studi didn’t get a role of equal complexity and screen time. Even Pike, at her most actor-ish here, gets more attention for her suffering than the Native American characters. There’s ample time for them to share their stories, given the film’s leisurely pace. Once again, the dominant culture — this time Hollywood — doesn’t want to share.
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★★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for strong violence, and language. In English and subtitled Cheyenne.