There’s a single shot in Scott Cooper’s new film Hostiles which makes it explicitly clear that he’s well aware of the Hollywood predecessors to his film, and in particular, the long shadow that The Searchers still casts over the Western genre as a whole.
There is a certain degree of futility to trying to find something new to say or do in a Western. Those who feel that there are too many superhero movies being made today clearly don’t have any notion of just how many hundreds of Westerns were turned out by the studios at one point. Even so, new filmmakers continue to be drawn to the form as a way of expressing certain emotional ideas or thematic ones, and Cooper’s clearly interested in tweaking some of Hollywood’s most iconic moments while also making a film that addresses healing at a time when our national conversation could sorely use some. It’s a film that feels comfortably part of a long tradition of Westerns that question the underpinnings of the American myth and acknowledge just how violent and ugly the foundations of our frontier spirit really are. It’s also a film that seems to say that it’s not enough to just point out that we come from blood and violence, and that if we are ever going to be anything else, we have to learn to see past that to some kind of viable future.
Donald E. Stewart died without ever seeing his treatment for Hostiles realized, but he poured research into it, determined to write something that was honest about the time and place. The film is set in 1892 as the Indian Wars are ending, something that leaves Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) adrift as a man without a purpose. He’s gotten quite good at killing “savages,” and he’s not wired for much else. He’s an educated man, but he’s given himself over to a pure, burning rage that has kept him moving and given him direction. Over the course of the film, we see Block encounter various white people who believe that America is doing wrong by its native people, and he is unmoved by their arguments. He has spent too much time soaked in too much blood, and he cannot imagine giving an inch to the idea of forgiveness.
When he is told he has to serve as the guard to Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) as he makes his way to his ancestral lands, Blocker tries to reject the assignment. He’s about to retire so he can live off his pension, but he’s told he won’t be able to collect it if he refuses to serve as Yellow Hawk’s escort. He can barely disguise his violent disgust at the entire enterprise, but he assembles his men and he rides out, determined to do his job as well as he can. Bale is surrounded by a great supporting cast. Timothée Chalamet continues his amazing 2017 with a nice piece of work here, and Rory Cochrane deserves special notice for his beard as well as his nuanced, haunted performance. Yellow Hawk’s family is also well-cast, with Q’orianka Kilcher and Adam Beach doing strong, affecting work.
If that was the whole film, Cooper would have plenty of thematic meat to digest, but he introduces a wild card in the form of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a white woman whose family is murdered during a horse raid. When they find her, she’s huddled in the burnt-out remains of her home, holding her infant close to her, wrapped in a blood-smeared blanket, and she’s wild-eyed, crazed by the catastrophic grief of what happened to her.
Speaking of which, the way Cooper stages the bursts of violence in the film, it’s always startling and ugly, and there’s a real weight to it. The film is careful to show that the assumption that you can lump all “Indians” together is crazy. Rosalie’s family were killed by Comanches, while Yellow Hawk is a Cheyenne. The soldiers may see them all as one unified thing that has to be killed, but it’s clear that tide is starting to turn. At one point, we see that the Cheyenne are just as offended by the way the Comanches behave as the soldiers are, and there’s a dawning understanding between Yellow Hawk and Blocker that is deeper than any simple, “Hey, you guys are people, too!” message. It’s a respect that comes from a recognition of what war has cost the other person, and it’s important to see that Blocker has his own problems to deal with from white men who are clearly on the wrong side of things. I don’t mean any offense to Ben Foster, who is a genuinely talented actor who has done lots of terrific work over the years, but he’s the easiest choice when casting the role he plays. It’s one of the few missteps Cooper makes in the film overall, and I think it may represent his most focused and uncompromising movie to date.
Christian Bale is one of those actors who can easily tip into self-parody in the wrong role, but when he’s in sync with a filmmaker and the material is there, he can still surprise. He digs deep here, and watching the way he plays the gradual thaw for Blocker is powerful. He and Pike are terrific together, and I am always impressed by Wes Studi. Like many of our great character actors, the older he gets, the more subtle he’s able to be. He communicates volumes here, and the weight of his experience is part of why Blocker can’t help but begin to change. Max Richter’s score is an appropriate degree of elegiac, and Masanoubu Takayanagi’s photography is painterly, a romantic snapshot of a world that was anything but romantic. It’s a great example of how the Western has always lied, how the beautiful vistas have always disguised the unspeakable cost of our expansion and our settlement.
Cooper quotes any number of specific Westerns, but it’s The Searchers that he leans into the hardest here, and why not? That film is not just an example of a filmmaker trying to make sense of the racial legacy of this storytelling form, but of Hollywood reaching the limits of what they can say without finally starting to deal with the reality of just how we took this country, and who we took it from. Cooper’s building even further off of the place where The Searchers stops, and his work here proves that he understands the opportunity of the genre as well as its limitations. This is not a film about how white people were wrong and Indians were all noble and tragic and misunderstood, but about how there was a myth of the West that drove everyone to dehumanize everyone else. Like Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, this film suggests that we have to kill our past if we ever hope to redefine our future, and it’s unafraid to believe that there is a way for us to be better than we were, especially if we face it together.
Running time: 133 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic