Hostiles is a new western that, thankfully, is not terrible. In some ways it’s a revival of the classic style, but in others, it is a modern analysis of the conflicting and centuries of violence that have marred the United States’ relationship with Native Americans. The manuscript was originally written by the late Academy Award-winning screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, who wrote Missing and The Hunt for Red October, who died almost twenty years ago. Director Scott Cooper reworked the screenplay and shares credit with Stewart. Is it good? Yes. Is it great? No, but that’s just fine by me.
Captain Blocker (Christian Bale) is “volun-told” by President Benjamin Harrison to escort an equally notorious leader, the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family to their tribal land in Montana. It seems to be a stroke of irony that the sitting President is the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who was particularly anti-Native, and signed many treaties to steal their lands. Benjamin Harrison, you’ll recall, was President during the Wounded Knee massacre. The contentious relations out West make the extreme violence seem normal, but as the film shows, it’s a form of adaptation that is poisonous for all.
Early in the film, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) deals with violent tragedy: her entire family is murdered. She sees things a mother should never see, and the graphic scene may give some viewers pause (the film is called Hostiles for a reason). The brutality continues in the next scene, with Bale’s character torturing and dragging a Native American male by horse, though it’s not the same group of men who attacked Rosalie’s family. This level of violence is the norm for his work in the Army, and this callousness has made Blocker legendary. They take Rosalie in, and though she accepts their kindness as she comes to terms with what has happened, she expresses a need for vengeance against her attackers. The Chief and Captain soon realize that the only way they could possibly survive is by using the tactics of both Native warriors and U.S. soldiers.
Since we now acknowledge how poorly leaders of the past treated Native Americans, and twentieth century filmmakers perpetuated negative stereotypes about people who were justifiably frustrated with hundreds of years of betrayal, it is only right that the U.S. continue reparations. This thought isn’t limited to the perspective of the viewer. It is also expressed by the soldiers as deep shame: though they do not know of the films that would come to pass, they are the “type” of soldiers films celebrated as heroes. Captain Blocker is the first to speak up and say that, while he may not like or enjoy the horrible things that he does for his job, this killing is exactly his job. A conversation reveals that something akin to PTSD is prominent among the men, and it has almost consumed one of them to the point where he is numb to murdering innocent children. It is therefore unsurprising that we now see the trauma alongside the bitterness of some anti-heroes of the West.
Without going into too much detail, the episodic nature of the film’s edit makes it feel a bit choppy at times, and it becomes a little predictable. The other side of that is that there is a feeling of dread throughout: not about what will happen next, but to whom, and by whom. Appearances by familiar actors, including Timothée Chalamet, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Q’orianka Kilcher, and Ben Foster add a freshness to each milestone transition of the journey. Rosamund Pike is great, as usual, as are Studi and Bale.
One great aspect of the film is the inclusion of Native actors in these roles, speaking their language to other characters with no need for a translator. The soldiers show respect to the Chief who would otherwise be an enemy. The last few years have been productive in terms of increased visibility for issues raised by Native Americans, and this film prioritizes their humanity (and that of the sole black character) as equal to that of the white characters. Even though some of the film gets muddled in some of these slower moments, they are essential, and will continue to impact and advance the genre.