Rating: A really good B+
Summary: An Army captain is ordered to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family to Montana.
Again, Westerns are pretty simple- here is a task, here is the issue, here is the campfire, now go complete the task. On the surface, Hostiles follows this closely- bring Wes Studi from point A to B with lots of obstacles in the way. However, there’s a lot that sets this movie apart from its classic predecessors- namely its approach and portrayal to Native Americans as well as the remorse and guilt felt by US soldiers in the “relocation” of Native Americans from their lands.
When I say “relocation,” I’m speaking directly to the nice textbook way of saying the forcible disruption, genocide, removal, etc. of Native Americans from their home. You get it. Visually, it’s a very pretty movie and captures the West in a loving and yet troubling sense- Hostiles is a hard, jarring look at the treatment and attitude towards Native Americans in the year 1892. It’s far from the romanticized ideal we’ve grown up with.
The movie stars Christian Bale as Captain Joseph Blocker, whose responsibility is to round up Apache natives and is facing retirement. As the last task a la King Arthur, he’s commanded to take Yellow Hawk (Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana so Yellow Hawk can die on his tribal lands. Blocker initially refuses to do Yellow Hawk any sort of service due to resistance his tribe initially posed, but then gives in. We get another perspective from settler Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family has been murdered by members of the Comanche tribe. Eventually, Studi is able to convince the pair that the Comanche don’t care about tribes and things will go much smoother if they are all on the same team. (Side note: I had a tough time figuring out if Bale’s name was Blocker, Stalker, Stocker, or Walker.)
Yeah, Joe and Rosalie come around because racism has an ending (#sarcasm). BUT I can appreciate what this movie does, which is challenge the familiar figures we would get in a Western, ideals of this time period, America’s (specifically white America’s) role as we know it. While I think overall the characters work together a little too nicely and there are some things tied up with a nice big bow, Hostiles does a pretty good job of providing a greyness to all of its characters- no one in the movie is completely innocent or absolved from their previous actions and for the most part, they each feel some sort of way about whatever traumatic experiences they’ve taken part in or been through. And there are so many questions of “But was this right?” throughout the movie, forcing another look at the history we’ve been exposed to. It all weighs the movies down and it can be felt from scene to scene. While the movie feels very long and some characters appear and disappear, they all slowly build to the breakdown of Blocker who is struggling to come to terms with his role in history. The best insight is given by side character Thomas Metz (played wonderfully by Rory Cochrane), who voices all of Blocker’s fears and puts the unnameable guilt into words.
Hostiles also toes the line of White Savior while giving you enough reasons to not like Bale. At all. As the film’s antihero, Blocker is adamant in his perspective of Studi, initially turning the mission (and pension) down because of things Yellow Hawk did in the past and not seeing that the two are extremely similar in their beliefs and methods- just on different sides. While the film acknowledges Blocker’s ignorance and ineptitude, it simultaneously makes it clear that this mission can’t be done without him. Rosalie is more or less in the same boat- she and her family on living on what we can assume is land taken from a tribe but doesn’t equate this with the experience she has in her family’s destruction.
I also have a lot of issues with Rosalie, as her arc is gentler (she comes around much faster) and also rougher at the same time- at one point, it’s implied that her character and two Native American women are raped. While I get the GOT argument of “these were the times!” it’s an event that happens without purpose- there’s nothing that comes out of it and Rosalie more or less remains the same character. This issue is solely used for the purpose to show Blocker, a man and not the victim, becoming more sensitive to other people- he tenderly asks Rosalie and Yellow Hawk (not even the two women) if they need more time. As Rosalie has her own development and own relationships with the other women, I think they deserved more from this instead of just servicing Blocker. Also, she’s been through enough- did this really need to be added in here? Did you really need that plot point? [inhales sharply] NEXT.
There’s also the issue of telling this kind of story from a white character’s point of view; however, given the controversial and somewhat rejected subject matter, this is appropriate within the Hollywood guidelines. This film intended to stir, provoke, and continue the conversation:
- It’s clear that accuracy and representation were at the top of priorities and it’s all director Scott Cooper’s efforts behind the scenes, from the actors to the consultants to the language spoken on-screen.
- This movie was self-financed without a distributor.
- We don’t get to see a lot of mainstream Native American films told from a Native American’s point of view, much less one that is this graphic in content and detail of the oppression they faced.
- It makes a lot of sense to bring these topics to the conversation using Bale’s star power. He’s the most beloved Batman so it’s automatically regarded as mainstream. (Less formally: rope ‘em in, then ask them the hard questions.)
I think this is the first mainstream Western I’ve seen that discusses this kind of content in this way, specifically posing Native Americans as the victims of this all. (If I’m missing anything, holler at me! Would love to see it.) Hopefully, the conversation can continue with more voices, more accuracy, and better execution.
Most of the film’s poignant moments are left to Studi, who as Yellow Hawk might have done bad things but as responses to what was being threatened- nothing indefensible. I’ve always liked Studi as an actor and I think this role really suited him. (He said in a recent interview he wants to make an old dude’s movie like Morgan Freeman’s Going in Style… Can we please please please make that happen?)
Overall, I think Hostiles does an excellent job of bringing today’s topics to the forefront, often things mainstream America doesn’t associate with this time period. I hope the following slowly comes out of this:
- Better opportunities for Native Americans working in film and television
- More/better opportunities to show the Native American experience and perspective
- More widespread, accurate knowledge of the US and government’s involvement and treatment of Native people(s)
- More accurate textbooks and education on the subject
- Honorary Oscar for Studi