This grim western does go beyond "Cowboys vs. Indians" - but only just barely. Hostiles is sorrowful, and perhaps unsure of what it’s trying to say, but is pulled up by an incredibly strong cast led by Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. 2.5 out of 5.
It's 1892 in New Mexico, and a respected Army Captain nearing retirement (Christian Bale) is sent on one final mission: to escort a dying Cheyenne Chief and his family to their former home in Montana. The Cheyenne family and the band of soldiers begin with distrust and even poisonous animosity; both sides have faced terrible cruelty from the other. But along the way, trust grows as they face terrible dangers and heavy losses.
In one way, the heart of the story seems to be a recognition that murder and hatred reside within all people, and an acknowledgement that the settling of white people in the United States remained a full-on war with the Native tribes until long after the Civil War.
The cast is strong. Christian Bale plays Captain Joe Blocker with great fortitude, integrity, and perhaps even more complexly than the script warrants. Rosamund Pike portrays Mrs. Rosalie Quaid, the only member of her family to survive a Comanche Indian attack which burned her home to the ground. After Captain Blocker and the gang stumble upon Mrs. Quaid, her addition to the party adds great dimension to the story, and Pike gives a raw and passionate performance.
Another element in the film’s favor is the journey the protagonists take to shape a more nuanced and accepting worldview. At the start, Rosalie and Joe know Natives only as villains: they have killed comrades and friends; they have shot down family members and burned houses. It takes shared trauma to help them slowly find shared humanity in their Native traveling companions, and it's always refreshing to see that portrayal on the big screen. Unfortunately, there's no real indication that their (especially Blocker's) conviction truly extends to a large-scale level. It seems more likely that they grew in fondness and respect for their specific traveling companions: Chief Yellow Tail (Wes Studi), Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), and Elk Woman (Q'orianka Kilcher).
It's hard to tell whose "side" the filmmakers are on, although the best guess is probably "both/neither." Troubling, the only mention of systemic European aggression, and that the Natives "were here first," comes from a character of no consequence chatting at a dinner table, and the focus of the scene paints her as unwittingly inflicting incredible pain upon Blocker and especially Rosalie, whose entire world has been shattered by a Comanche attack.
It seems to remain true that Hollywood is not particularly adept at creating complex Native American characters. In this movie, we see either bloodthirsty Comanches or silent, generous, proud Cheyennes. And, of all the First Nations aspiring actresses who surely come to casting calls, must casting agents continue to fallback to (admittedly talented) Q'orianka Kilcher in nearly every such film?
In the end, similar to our critique of The Lost City of Z, this film is also shadowed by the "how can this romp help teach our white characters new lessons?" conundrum. And as in Lost City, it's hard to say whether the film's good points truly justify its own existence.
Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes
The movie begins with a quote from D.H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." And that is certainly the film's hypothesis, showing first an attack from Comanches, and then the torture and disgrace of unarmed Cheyennes by white U.S. soldiers. As the film progresses, audiences are prompted to consider whether the truth of Lawrence's quote is able to be tempered by the better angels of human nature: empathy, compassion, and teamwork.
Not every school teaches this era of history as a proper war, but the film evokes the feeling of watching two opposing sides struggle to maintain energy after hundreds of years of fighting. Which again, provokes the painful memory that the invaders to what we now call the United States were nominally Christian.
God and the Christian faith are mentioned a few times, and a man is seen carrying what looks like a Bible. A woman asks a man about his “relationship with the Lord,” and discusses her own faith struggles. A character later says “We’ll never get used to the Lord’s rough ways,” about the violence and death their group has experienced. There are several mentions of mercy in the film, provoking much to ponder. Who deserves mercy? Who should be in charge of offering it? Is a violent action wrong only if your commanding officer decrees it so? Can something be wrong and evil if it’s your government-sanctioned job?
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)
- MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, and language
- Language/Profanity: A few uses of the F-word. Other profanity, such as “ b**ch,” and “hell” and several hateful racial slurs.
- Sexuality/Nudity: It is implied, though not certain, that a group of women have been raped by their kidnappers. A woman invites a man into her tent to keep warm, and at one point they huddle close together and share an emotional moment.
- Violence/Frightening/Intense: Lots of “wild west” violence: people (including children) are shot by guns and arrows; there is some wrestling and hand to hand combat; we see a man partially scalp another man; men are stabbed and choked; there is plenty of blood, a house is set on fire and burns entirely. Two characters refer to a violent story as an example of “the good old days.” One character says of killing, “if you do it enough, you get used to it.” A character commits suicide (offscreen). Dead bodies are seen, including one hanging from a tree. A man discusses hanging as the penalty for a man’s crimes.
Drugs/Alcohol: Men are shown drinking alcohol and smoking cigars. A man gives tobacco as a gift to another man.
The Bottom Line
RECOMMENDED FOR: Fans of westerns. Lovers of beautiful landscapes and cinematography. Particular lovers of Rosamund Pike and Christian Bale. Anyone who might need a harsh (if woefully incomplete) introduction to the animosity between white settlers and Native Americans.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those who expect dynamic and complex nonwhite characters. Those sensitive to blood and violence. Anyone tired of seeing stories which smack of "white savior" or "how this white man learned a valuable life lesson" themes.
Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper, opened in limited theaters December 22, 2017, wide January 26, 2018. It runs 134 minutes and stars Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Wes Studi, Ben Foster; Jonathan Majors, Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief, Tanaya Beatty and Q'orianka Kilcher. Watch the trailer for Hostiles here.
Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.
Publication date: January 19, 2018
Image courtesy: ©EntertainmentStudios