“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (1963)
What would you say is worse, something that’s just outright bad from start to finish or something that clearly has the potential to be good ending up bad? One of approaches the former with low expectations based on knowledge of what made the product in question; this makes it hard to be disappointed when said product maintains the low standards of its predecessors. The latter is often something borne out of a greatness that one would love to see repeated. When it fails to meet that greatness, it can make you reevaluate the perceived greatness of what came before.
Of the two options, Hostiles is definitely the latter.
Mind you, it didn’t disappoint me because of what came before (I haven’t seen Scott Cooper’s critically-acclaimed Crazy Heart or his crime thriller Out of the Furnace, but I have seen his mediocre Whitey Bulger bio-pic Black Mass), but rather the fact that there are so many things in it to make a great film, yet it settles for being a run-of-the-numbers retread.
The year is 1892. Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has become something of a legend in the effective – and often brutal – way he clears lands of the native tribes that inhabit them. Having become fluent in languages and customs of several tribes, the openly racist officer takes pride in how well he carries out his assignments. But that very effectiveness proves paradoxical when he arrives in New Mexico. It’s there that he assigned to escort the notorious Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief, Tanaya Beatty) to their former tribal land in Montana, where a cancer-ridden Yellow Hawk may die in peace.
As Blocker and his men reluctantly make their way northward with their assigned guests, they encounter a hostile band of Comanche scalpers, a woman (Rosamund Pike) widowed by said scalpers, illegal fur traders, and even angry fellow cavalrymen. As Yellow Hawk tries to hold on to life, Blocker begins to question who has really done more damage to this land and the people who inhabit it.
I’ll be honest, folks: I can deal with the fact this story involving Indigenous Peoples, one Buffalo Soldier, and a traumatized woman is told entirely from a White man’s point-of-view – that’s to be expected. I could even deal with the fact that it was expeditious, so as to fit into a roughly two-hour running time. I could even deal with the fact that yet another quintessential American tale was being told with two Brits in the lead (Bale and Pike). But its “We are the World”-by-way-of-White-savior bullshit was too much.
Look, there’s a good movie to be found inside of Hostiles – a great one, in fact. The early scenes depicting Blocker’s ugly anti-tribal racism are both realistic and palpable. When he and his entourage encounter the traumatized Rosalie Quaid (Pike) after her family has been slaughtered by Comanches, both her reactions – including cradling her baby and breaking down at the sight of Yellow Hawk and family – and Blocker’s sensitivity to her reactions create an excellent emotional foundation for the film. All of this hints at a wonderfully complex and nuanced look at the very racist history most Americans would rather ignore.
But director/screenwriter Scott Cooper isn’t interested in telling that tale. Instead, he has Blocker go from trying to goad Yellow Hawk into a knife-fight to treating him as a respected peer before the halfway point; Quaid goes from suicidal and outwardly resentful of Yellow Hawk’s family to accepting a gift from them and washing dishes alongside them in record time; and – in one of the film’s most horrendous plot turns – the women of the expedition go from being kidnapped and raped by snarling White fur trappers (yes, ALL the women in the expedition: including Quaid, Yellow Hawk’s wife, and their daughter-in-law) to Quaid wanting to hop in bed with Blocker the very next night.
There isn’t a single ounce of natural character progression in this entire film; everyone winds up changed simply because the plot says so. Racist? Ride with some Cheyenne and you’ll get over it. Raped? Give it a few hours and you’ll be ready to bone a stranger in no time. Shook from your first kill? Just forget about it. Who knew all the world’s problems and prejudices were as simple to solve as walking off a stubbed toe?
I don’t mind the fact that Cooper appears to be telling his story (based on that of writer Donald E. Stewart) from a contemporary progressive perspective. What I take issue with is the way he reduces complex characters to straw men and women, and tries to inject the characters – not the story, the characters – with a level of political correctness that would have been anachronistic for the era. With the exception of one or two uses of the term “red skin,” all Indigenous are referred to as “natives”. And in the very racist cavalry, no one seems to mind the one Black soldier in the expedition. Quite the contrary, Blocker holds him in the highest regard. Why? Just because.
So, after all the horrible things I’ve mentioned, why don’t I give this film my lowest rating? Because the things that are good are really good. Although most of the script is a trainwreck, Cooper will eventually stumble upon the aforementioned early scenes. What’s more, everyone in the cast creates and excellent performance. Y’all know I’m not the biggest fan of Bale – neither as an actor nor as a human being – but for the sake of artistic critique, I must admit that he does maybe his best work here. That doesn’t excuse anything about him (or any of his past shitty performances), but credit where due. And when Rosamund Pike isn’t treating the slaughter of her family and her own rape like brushing dirt off her shoulder, she actually does bring a good sense of heartbreak to the character of Mrs. Pike. Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief, and Tanaya Beatty all do their best as Yellow Hawk and family. It’s too bad they’re all just reduced to the “noble savages” stereotype.
And the film is beautifully shot by Masanobu Takayanagi. Rather than take the production to Canada, Takayanagi and Cooper make great use of the beautiful New Mexico and Phoenix landscapes. Every horizon is captured without looking like a postcard, and every character is given an interesting angle that still allows you to explore the frame. Add in some good editing by Tom Cross and the two-hour-plus runtime is at least pleasant to look at.
Hostiles presents itself as an old John Wayne-John Ford wagon trail western seen through contemporary ideals. Given how unapologetically racist and sexist those films were, such a perspective would be a welcome relief. Unfortunately, Scott Cooper’s idea of “contemporary ideals” is to reduce characters into the descriptions one would find on a job application; to say nothing of the fact that his film is still unintentionally racist and sexist. The technical side of this film is exemplary in how to do film-making right; the script is exemplary of someone who failed Character Development 101.