It’s as American as the hatred of “Indians”….or I think that’s how the saying goes. Scott Cooper’s Hostiles tries its best at reconciliation and wokeness, but christens itself as the first dud of 2018.
The film opens with a wholesome family picture in the middle of the American west, as a father tends to horses, and a mother, Mrs. Quaid (Rosamund Pike) gives schooling to the children. However, the tranquility is broken when a gang of Camanche Native Americans come to steal horses, killing just about everyone in the process (the sole survivor being Mrs. Quaid). This initial sequence is well edited. The cuts during the schooling are quick. Though, it’s a normal domestic scene, with the rapid cutting the editor is signaling that terror is imminent.
The very next sequence is of Capt. Blocker (Christian Bale), watching as his soldiers drag a Native American male behind their horses, while the man’s family watches. Here, we have our first major issue with Hostiles. Yes, it shows the cruelty of both Native Americans and whites, however, it shows the Native American’s despicable actions first. Putting the two side-by-side in their sequencing doesn’t invite comparison, instead, it invites affirmation. It tells the audience that though these soldiers are cruel, clearly, it’s worth it. When Hostiles is going “well,” it aptly examines white America’s actions in Native American removal and genocide, sending out olive branches, such as the dinner scene between Mrs. Quaid, Blocker, and the McCowans.
Cooper attempts to distill the Army’s hatred for Native Americans through Blocker, when he’s ordered to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their homeland in Montana. There, Yellow Hawk (who’s dying of cancer), can rest in peace. The relationship between Blocker and Yellow Hawk is the second major issue with Hostiles. When presented with the assignment, Blocker silently fumes, protesting against protecting a “savage” who mercilessly killed his comrades. The amount of hate demonstrated in this scene, makes one think that Blocker would never forgive Yellow Hawk. Bale unquestionably kills the material, his gruff internal intensity violently and repeatedly bobs to the surface when provoked by a reporter, Jeremiah Wilks (Bill Camp). Bale sells the lines well, almost too well.
The rest of the movie becomes an Odyssey, as Blocker and his soldiers traverse with Yellow Hawk and his family, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), and Black Hawk (Adam Beach) to Montana. Blocker’s cohort is initially made up of Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), Kidder (Jesse Plemons), DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet), and Metz (Rory Cochrane). Most of these characters fall like flies, and we’re rarely able to build any connections with them. Even when they do have their emotional farewells, we have to wonder, “Why should we care?”
The only soldier in the cohort we attach to is Metz, who’s a war-weary soldier with obvious PTSD symptoms. The dynamic between Metz and Blocker are of two soldiers who are past their killing days. It’s a theme visited in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (there’s even a line-for-line rip from the film in Hostiles). However, in the rush to build up a love story between Mrs. Quaid and Blocker, court social awareness and regret for the slaughter of Native Americans, transport Yellow Hawk, and reconcile Yellow Hawk and Blocker’s relationship, the dark psyche of burned out killers in the west gets lost in the light brown dust.
The central issue in Hostiles, I think…it’s so muddled it’s hard to tell, is reconciliation. The film spends most of its time making two old foes see the better angels of their nature. There are multiple trials in the long journey to Montana, but it only takes one, the first one for Blocker to trust Yellow Hawk. In fact, after Mrs. Quaid’s family has been massacred by Native Americans, it only takes the gift of a dress from Yellow Hawk’s daughter for Mrs. Quaid to not see them as threats. These charities are all well and good, but they aren’t believable. Blocker’s easy trust is inconceivable after seeing the early vitriol he displayed toward Yellow Hawk. Mrs. Quaid’s feeling aren’t tangible after her heartbreak. Not only are the acts fanciful, but they happen too quickly. True reconciliation happens with time, not in a flash. Because the main struggle of the film is resolved in the first hour, the rest of the film perfunctory.
However, my biggest gripe with Hostiles is its artificial “wokeness.” Yes, we’ll take time to rightly defend Native Americans, but we won’t stop them from seeing white people as God-like figures. This is evident in Yellow Hawks’s entire family swooning over Mrs. Quaid’s fortitude. It doesn’t stop there, as the conclusion of the film is essentially cultural whitewashing and assimilation. Cooper doesn’t allow for an ending where Native American culture survives and thrives, instead we’re treated to Yellow Hawk’s grandson wearing the “white man’s” clothing, carrying a book of Julius Caesar, with his entire family gone and being shepherd off to (the great city of) Chicago. It’s a cultural postmortem. The last 5 minutes of the film unwinds and sweeps away the lessons of the previous 130 minutes.
I went into Hostiles wanting to love it. Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, and Rory Cochrane aren’t at fault at all. They all give stellar performances. The screenplay is just weighed down by too many revolving characters, trials, and goals. Moreover, though I gave credit to the early editing, the pacing of the film utterly drags. It’s a 135 minute film that feels like 180 minutes. The wants are grandiose, but the gains are minuscule. Hostiles could have done withpicking a lane. If you’re going to make a film about wokeness then do it. If this is a film about PTSD then do it. If you want to make it a love story, a tale of forgiveness, hell, a deep sea epic with a sponge as a friend, go all in. But you can’t do all of the above. Though, taking on that deep sea epic with a friendly sponge would have made me give Hostiles another point on its rating.
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Photo Credit: IMDb