In the opening scene of Hostiles, the new film from writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) starring Christian Bale, the audience finds itself in a much darker place than in revisionist westerns like Dances with Wolves. Cooper dispenses with the lens of liberal white guilt through which all Native Americans are seen as passive Earth children who were slaughtered by the white man. The Indian-led carnage that opens the film makes it clear that both sides of this conflict committed atrocities against the other. The settlement of the west was nothing short of warfare, and the difference between a hero and a war criminal is determined by which side you are fighting for. Context is everything. If you were to flip the order of the opening two scenes of Hostiles, you have an entirely different movie.
Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is an Indian hunter with a legendary (and bloody) reputation for killing Native Americans. Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has a similar notoriety as a killer of white men, women and children. Yellow Hawk has been a prisoner for seven years, and the U.S. government has decided he will be freed and transported back to his tribal territory to die from the cancer that has riddled his body. The Indian wars are winding down, and the President is politically savvy and concerned about appearances. He wants to look like a magnanimous victor.
Blocker is given the task of escorting Yellow Hawk through dangerous lands to return him safely to his ancestral home. He initially refuses and faces a threat of court martial and the loss of his pension by his commanding officer, Colonel Abraham Biggs (a startlingly lean Stephen Lang). The convoy soon learns that there are Indian tribes who view Yellow Hawk AND Captain Blocker as mortal enemies. However, this story is far deeper than a simple tale of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
Christian Bale delivers an amazing performance as a man of honor haunted by the evil deeds that his job demanded of him. Bale does more with silences than most actors accomplish with words. Wes Studi brings a quiet dignity to his character. We can see equal measures of guilt and resolve in his eyes. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) sheds her frosty likeness to Nicole Kidman, and along with Bale, forms the heart of this film. The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of character actors, young and old. From John Benjamin Hickey and Bill Camp to Jesse Plemons (Fargo) and Ben Foster (Hell or High Water), Hostiles offers an embarrassment of acting riches.
In the end, Hostiles is less concerned about being a western (though it’s a great one) and more interested in telling the story of men who go off to war and are forever changed by the experience. From the massacre of innocent women and children to the post-traumatic stress-induced suicide of one its characters, Hostiles‘ narrative could be set during any major American conflict, and it would work just as well. While it’s always fun to revisit certain western tropes (the silent tough cowboy, the endangered wagon train on a cross-country drive), the power of Hostiles isn’t the period detail. Its brilliance is found in its characters, and that’s high praise, indeed.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.