Hostiles: Makeshift families in a violent wilderness

I’m not entirely sure why I missed the boat on Hostiles the first time around. It’s strange, considering that director Scott Cooper is someone whose work I’ve been very impressed with from the outset. First wowing audiences back in 2009 with the powerful Jeff Bridges-helmed redemption story Crazy Heart, Cooper followed up with 2013’s brutal and devastating Rust Belt crime drama Out of the Furnace. Having loved these two pictures, I was considerably amped upon hearing that he was to release 2015’s Black Mass, a frightening biopic that details the career of notorious American crime lord Whitey Bulger (it will be a sacrilegious statement for some, but it’s also the only movie where I feel that Depp gives a remarkable performance). I’m most certainly psyched for Antlers as well, though when that’s actually coming out is anybody’s guess.

I was deeply intrigued by Hostiles upon its release, owing not only to Cooper being the driving force but also the dual presence of Christian Bale and Wes Studi, the latter fomenting many nightmares for me as a child thanks to his diabolical turn as the monstrous Magua in The Last Of The Mohicans. I kept endeavouring to watch it but kept getting sidetracked, culminating in my noticing it on Netflix a couple of nights ago and saying ”F**k it, let’s stick this on”. To nip this pre-amble in the bud, I’ve elected on a slight change of pace to my usual review of a brand spanking new release to expound the virtues of this robust and underrated revisionist Western.

It’s 1892, and we’re in New Mexico. As the film opens, homesteader Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) is giving her young children an English lesson while her husband Wesley (Scott Shepherd) works out front. Spying figures in the distance that he initially believes to be horse rustlers, Wesley alerts his family only to be promptly and savagely attacked by the aforementioned group, who turn out to be a Comanche war party. Violently killing Wesley and the children, the raid leaves a deeply traumatised Rosalee clutching her dead infant son, barely escaping with her life due to hiding under a rock. As opening sequences go, it’s a pointedly harrowing one.

Meanwhile at Fort Berringer, highly respected and feared U.S. Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is anticipating a well-earned retirement. Hardened after years of fighting in the Frontier Wars, Blocker is a tough, broodingly intense and pitiless individual who harbours a strong hatred of Native Americans. Stern and laconic, Blocker exhibits no emotions as his underlings brutalise Native folk, essentially regarding them as an irredeemably wicked people responsible for the loss of several dear people in his life.

Just before Blocker can ride off into the sunset and spend the rest of his life at leisure, commanding officer Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) informs him of a non-negotiable final assignment: Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a once formidable Cheyenne war chief now dying from cancer after years imprisoned at the fort, is to be escorted back to his tribal homelands in Montana alongside his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), and the chief’s grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). Enraged by the order and indignantly dismissing Yellow Hawk as a savage who mercilessly killed many of his friends, Blocker is in a bind as Biggs states that it is so decreed by President Benjamin Harrison and that he is liable to face a court-martial and be stripped of his pension should he refuse the duty.

Accompanied on the detail by a handful of Cavalry personnel including his remorseful and battle-fatigued best friend Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), Blocker is barely suppressing his icy contempt for Yellow Hawk and his family when the expedition happens across the decimated Quaid homestead from the film’s opening. Dazed and still clutching her murdered son amid the burnt-out ruins of her home, Rosalee appears completely disassociated as Blocker offers her food and warm clothing.

Agreeing to join the company as far as their next stop in Fort Winslow, Colorado, Rosalee’s initial unease at the presence of the Native prisoners gradually begins to give way to a more empathetic connection. As they traverse the American plains during the thousand-mile trek to the Northwest, our focal crew of travellers must contend with marauding Comanches and ruthless opportunists, including an unsettling ex-colleague of Blocker who has become a war criminal (Ben Foster), the mutual zeal to survive laying the groundwork for a better understanding and possible reconciliation and redemption.

Eschewing predictable Hollywood cheese and offensive garden-variety depictions of Native American characters, Hostiles greatly benefits from a screenplay that necessarily understates the personalities and motivations of the principals. Contrary to many complaints I’ve encountered that lambast Yellow Hawk and his family as underwritten, I felt that the interactions on that front lent the work a refreshing verisimilitude. Blocker begins the piece as a deeply racist character, so it stands to reason that he has little inclination to converse with Yellow Hawk or any of his progeny.

Films that examine the clashing of cultures and subsequent road to goodwill are invariably saturated in narrative developments that tell rather than show, typically in the form of overripe and unimaginative dialogue that induces a sickly feeling in the viewer and, as far as I’m concerned, annihilates the motivation to continue. By having Yellow Hawk and his family maintain a vigilant and quiet dignity, Hostiles avoids stock characterisation and embarrassing archetypes in favour of arguably realistic interpersonal foundations. I’m usually wary of arguments from authority, but if the National Congress of American Indians has commended the film for its authentic representation of Native peoples and languages after decades of crude and patronising portrayals, I dare say they’ve gotten something right here.

The thoughtful restraint exercised by allowing the Native characters to tell their stories through expressions as opposed to inane dialogue or goofy cliches is something echoed by the performances of the overall cast, Bale & Pike delivering some career-best work to say the least. Blocker and Rosalee are two people who have suffered immeasurably in their respective ways, yet this is again displayed via straightforward visual exposition and/or carefully written tidbits of worldview. They spend a great deal of the film saying little, emoting through ambiguous glances and gestures, and it is this facet that underpins Hostiles‘ emotional power. This entire group reaches a plateau of caring for one another’s humanity and well-being through shared experiences that is never trounced by on-the-nose or afterthought character commentary, permitting the viewer to feel organically rather than being instructed. Thanks to Rory Cochrane’s inimitable nuance, the guilt-ridden character of Metz is convincing as a tragic representation of war’s footnotes where he could have easily been a clunky and shoehorned agent of redemption.

And my, what lush cinematography to boot. Masanobu Takayanagi’s keen eye and colour palette richly capture the rolling expanse of the New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado plains and badlands, the environmental intimacy possessing a strongly immersive quality. The imagery marches in lockstep with a mighty and stirring soundscape courtesy of Max Richter, flawlessly articulating the film’s sense of plaintive adventure. I had a brief worry that all of this momentum was on the precipice of being spoiled by an obvious romantic trajectory for Bale and Pike’s characters, but thankfully that is suffused with much ambiguity and their arc is ultimately about two people who come to care for one another in a platonic sense first and foremost.

What other reviewers have highlighted as shortcomings in Hostiles, I received as pure strengths. Wonderfully acted, gorgeous to look at, well scripted and quietly humanistic in-between its unflinching violence, it easily stands as one of the better modern Westerns that transported me back to the emotionally majestic experience of works such as Mann’s Mohicans and many of the Western epics of the 40s and 50s right through to the New Hollywood era that I spent many an afternoon watching with my father. It’s got style and heart in spades, and it pays off.

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