Director Scott Cooper enjoys focusing on the forgotten man, whether he be a washed-up country singer or an underestimated mobster. His films possess a quiet dignity to them that, for many audiences, is introspective. To others, his work comes off as slow and ponderous. It’s doubtful his latest opus, a funeral tribute to the Old West entitled Hostiles, will change hearts or minds already made up on Cooper. However Hostiles is one of Cooper’s more accessible works, drawing on the Western tradition, including Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, to look at the world of early settlers and Native Americans with a modern sensibility that’s keenly appropriate to our times.
Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid is the first character audiences meet in Hostiles, setting the tone for the entire affair. The Quaid family is quickly set upon by natives, leaving Rosalie alone and traumatized. It is in this harrowing sequence, hauntingly captured by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, that situates the film’s primary thesis. As Rosalie claws a set of graves out of the Earth with her bare hands, it’s easy to question “who are the ‘Hostiles‘ of the title?” Is it the Native Americans who slaughtered her family, or the white men, led by Christian Bale’s stoic Captain Joseph Blocker.
The revisionist Western has always tried to contextualize early American settler’s relationship with the Native Americans, with many acting as apologies for our ancestors. Hostiles presents things ambiguously, refusing to put a bow on anyone’s actions. Life doesn’t cleanly split into black and white. Blocker’s mission is to escort a murderous Native chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), dying of cancer, to lands in Montana. Blocker’s hatred of Yellow Hawk is certainly fueled by white superiority but also his own personal experience; Yellow Hawk murdered Blocker’s men. As Blocker and Yellow Hawk traverse the rugged landscape on their way to Montana, the narrative organically unfolds, putting both characters in charge of how they shape their future, not their past.
Everyone assembled in the posse to Montana have their own prejudices against each other – whether it be Yellow Hawk who bears the abuses Blocker lumps upon him at the beginning, or Rosalie, who can only assume all Natives are evil based on her own personal tragedy. Cooper’s script forces the audience to confront both the injustice the U.S. is founded upon, but also how personal experience can galvanize our beliefs. There are questions that are posited, but never fully explicated, particularly regarding the one African-American member of the group Woodsen (Jonathan Majors). Though events play out after the Civil War there’s no real discussion of how the group’s prejudices to the Natives affect him. Considering the history of systemic racism it’s bizarre that the movie doesn’t even think – or shies away from – questioning how the group’s treatment of individuals changes with race.
Cooper’s work is consciously paced, with a cold-blooded, naturalistic patter that leaves him divisive to audiences. Hostiles, while mired in the trappings of other Western narratives and hence more accessible – or at least its decisions are based in tropes of that genre – there’s still a quiet, meditative quality to it that won’t appease newcomers to his work. Never entering into the level of esoteric wandering a la Terence Malick, Hostiles presents dark, existential topics in single lines of dialogue – “Sometimes I envy the finality of death.” With only a basic plot to guide, much of the narrative is broken up by the introduction of new characters, whose motivations are complicated by a very muddled sound mix. Cooper entertains the belief that our language can be a colorful identifier (as with Black Mass) or, in this film, what divides us. When dialogue isn’t being spoken in Yellow Hawk’s own dialect, it’s in hushed whispers that leave you straining to hear.
Bale’s Blocker leads the brigade, and he is well-suited to the role of a contemplative racist who begrudgingly changes throughout, but it’s hard to ignore the better performances given by Wes Studi and Pike. Studi’s Chief Yellow Hawk regally presides over the film. His face is a blank slate for a range of emotions, never highlighting the character’s fear or frustration. Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie tries to escape the trappings of being a prototypical “woman in the West,” and she succeeds admirably. Her burgeoning relationship with Blocker never comes off as anything more than the need for two people of the opposite gender to get together; it’s expected, but ultimately unnecessary.
Filmed in the vein of epic Westerns like Dances with Wolves, Hostiles brings up intriguing questions about how audiences react to the Western today. It won’t be enough to convert naysayers to Cooper’s work, but it should reach more audiences than his previous efforts.