Film of the week: Hostiles – a typically lush, liberal western

Scott Cooper’s brutally violent and psychologically rich epic benefits from astonishing cinematography and refined performances, but its vaunted sympathy for its Native American characters only goes so far.

Philip Kemp

from our January 2018 issue

Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk and Christian Bale as Captain Joseph J. Blocker in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk and Christian Bale as Captain Joseph J. Blocker in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles

Spoiler alert: this review reveals key plot details

Hostiles wears its conscience on its sleeve – rather too blatantly at times. Towards the end of Scott Cooper’s film, a veteran US soldier, Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who at the outset has been seen boozily reminiscing with his old comrade Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) about their shared good old days slaughtering ‘savages’, solemnly tells a Native American woman, “Our treatment of the natives cannot be forgiven” – and this in 1892. We’ve previously had advance warning of this kind of anachronistic liberal piety, when Blocker and Metz, along with the Native American family they’re escorting back from New Mexico to their homelands in Montana, arrive in Fort Winslow, Colorado, where another of Blocker’s old army comrades, Colonel Ross McCowan (Peter Mullan), is CO. At dinner that evening, Mrs McCowan (Robyn Malcolm) launches into a harangue about the condition of the Native Americans that could have been scripted by Oxfam, until her embarrassed husband silences her.

All this feeds into the moral rehabilitation of Blocker, whom we first meet watching with satisfaction as his men round up a lone, unarmed Apache and drag him along the ground with a noose around his neck while his wife and child scream in desperate appeal. Blocker – who, we’re told, is said to have taken “more scalps than Sitting Bull himself” – starts the film with a visceral loathing of Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, impassively dignified), the man he’s been ordered to escort by presidential decree, excoriating him as a ruthless killer. No sooner are he and his party clear of Fort Berringer, their starting point, than Blocker orders Yellow Hawk and his son Black Hawk to be placed in chains for the journey. But by the time the chief dies, 1,000 miles further on and some two hours later, Blocker can gaze grief-stricken into his eyes and tell him, “A part of me dies with you.”

Psychological and emotional journeys of this kind have shown up before in Cooper’s work. In his directorial debut, Crazy Heart (2009), Jeff Bridges’s broken-down, booze-addicted country and western singer meets a young reporter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who offers him a chance at redemption. There’s a similar pattern in Out of the Furnace (2013), Cooper’s previous collaboration with Bale, in which the actor’s mill-worker protagonist, fresh from jail, sets out to rescue his brother from a merciless thug.

And in the present film, Blocker’s change of heart is paralleled by that of Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose first reaction to seeing the chief and his family is to scream with horror. Before long, however, she’s bonding with his womenfolk, who lend her clothes, and helping them with the washing-up. (Which gets her kidnapped by some fur trappers, but no matter.) By the film’s final scene, she has adopted the only surviving member of the family, Yellow Hawk’s young grandson Little Bear.

Hostiles (2017)

We’ve seen this plot trajectory in previous westerns, of course: in John Ford’s classic The Searchers (1956) and, less solemnly, in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). More recently, and in a very different historical context, it showed up in Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine (2015), in which Roland Møller’s virulently anti-German Danish sergeant gradually comes to experience near-fatherly feelings for his exploited young German charges. But all this means is that almost from the outset of Hostiles we have a broad idea of what’s coming.

This predictability, and the intermittent sense that we’re being fed a civics lesson, regrettably detracts from the film’s more positive qualities. The action scenes are powerfully and vividly shot, especially the opening pre-credits sequence in which we see Rosalee’s rancher husband and all three children brutally slaughtered by the Comanche as she only narrowly escapes, clutching her dead baby’s blood-soaked body.

The emotional impact of this scene effectively prepares us for Blocker’s hatred and contempt for all Native Americans: his attitudes may well be appallingly racist, but not, we have to concede, wholly unmotivated. Furthermore, Cooper suggests that they feed into something deeply embedded in the American psyche. Following the Comanche massacre and before we even meet Blocker, there flashes up on the screen a quotation from D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

The acting, when the more didactic elements of Cooper and the late Donald Stewart’s script don’t get in the way, is consistently effective, with honours going to Pike as the bereaved Rosalee. When the soldiers find her sitting in her burnt-out ranch house, the bodies of her slaughtered children lying tenderly blanketed beside her, her anguished quietness is more heart-wrenching than any hysterical outburst could be.

Bale, with his wounded stare, brings off the shift in Blocker’s character as convincingly as could be expected. In one of the film’s edgiest scenes, he confronts Philip Wills (Ben Foster), the prisoner condemned to hang for murdering a Native American family. “It could just as easily be you,” Wills tells him with a malevolent grimace, and Bale’s contained reaction shows that the sneer has hit home.

Rosamund Pike as Rosalee Quaid

Rosamund Pike as Rosalee Quaid

The overwhelming glory of Hostiles, though, is Masanobu Takayanagi’s widescreen cinematography. With New Mexico and Colorado depicting both themselves and adjacent states, he brings a rich, sweeping majesty to his landscape long shots, a lyrical sense of vast untamed spaces that recalls the classic era of the western. Time and again the distant prospect of a row of riders crossing a deep verdant valley or silhouetted against the skyline conjures up memories of Sam Peckinpah or Anthony Mann. If Takayanagi – who’s already proved his worth on Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Cooper’s previous film Black Mass (2015) – isn’t nominated for an Oscar on the strength of this, there’ll be something seriously amiss.

But if there’s one major oversight in this film, for all its epic scope, it’s that despite its sincerely felt subject matter, everything is seen throughout from the viewpoint of the white folks. We’re only ever shown the Native Americans from the outside, whether as shrieking killers (the Comanche) or as dignified, empathetic individuals with their own values (Yellow Hawk and his family) – in other words, much the way Native Americans have always been shown in the vast majority of westerns. Of their own perspectives we learn little or nothing.

It’s significant that in the film’s concluding scene, the only survivor of Yellow Hawk’s family is its youngest member – the child Little Bear, who’s being taken off to be brought up by a white woman (Rosalee), and who by way of a farewell gift is presented by Blocker with a copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars – in Latin. Native American culture, one suspects, won’t get much of a look-in in this boy’s future education. In a film that makes such an eloquent and evidently heartfelt plea on behalf of America’s native peoples, their mistreatment and marginalisation, it feels as if an opportunity has been missed.

 

  • Sight & Sound: the January 2018 issue

    Sight & Sound: the January 2018 issue

    The best films of 2017 and reflections on the year in cinema, plus Get Out, Twin Peaks: The Return, Frances McDormand, Gary Oldman, Miike Takashi,...

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