Hostiles, the new revisionist Western from director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass), is the story how of Indian-hating Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) came to respect the humanity of Cheyanne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi). That’s not just the movie’s plot; it’s the film’s only interest.
The focus on Blocker’s character arc hobbles Hostiles in both craft and theme. Cooper tells his story in big, obvious strokes, in which characters declare to one another their motivations and world-views. To make sure that everyone understands the full gravity of these motivations and world-views, Cooper drags out most scenes, letting his characters stare down the camera or each other.
The plot — in which Blocker’s company encounters Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a woman traumatized by her family’s murder by Comanche attackers, while escorting Yellow Hawk and his family to their ancestral burial grounds — unfolds with the same lack of subtlety. Cooper uses bursts of horrific violence to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man, but thoroughly proves that point with the slaughter of the Quaids in the movie’s opening scene. After showing us a baby killed in its mother’s arms, any bad stuff that follows feels excessive. And, boy, does bad stuff follow.
Bold, broad storytelling can be an effective way to wrestle with complex ideas in genre fiction, but Blocker’s great realization is simply that indigenous people are people too and that the US Government has treated them badly. It’s a small, obvious point that Cooper makes so loudly, so seriously, that watching the film feels like listening to a Freshman shout about his first American Studies course.
Worse, by focusing entirely on Blocker’s story, Hostiles sublimates all of its ample suffering into the main character’s journey of personal development. The narrative justifies its many, many horrible incidents as teachable moments from which Blocker learns that other people matter.
At least the movie acknowledges the depth of Quaid’s pain, communicated through Pike’s full-bodied portrayal of a woman worn to her frayed nerves — a performance that would be impressive in a film not choking on its own profundity. Conversely, Studi and those playing Yellow Hawk’s family, including Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher, get little to do but look noble while accepting both abuse and apologies from white people. And even that’s more depth than the film gives to the Comanche, rendering them instead as beastly and inhumane as anything Mary Rowlandson described.
Ultimately, then, Hostiles is another entry in a long line of American stories about white people becoming civilized through the annihilation of native peoples, made all the more grating by its full-throated claims of benevolence and wisdom.