Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.
Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.
But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.
Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.
The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.
"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.
But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.
Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.
Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get
We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.
The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.