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Film Critic Joshua Woods is conflicted over neo-western film Hostiles starring Christian Bale and Rosamund PIke
The first thing to say about Hostiles is that it is devastatingly brutal. It’s 1892 in New Mexico and the American Indian Wars of the “Wild West” are in their dying throes. The US Army is slaughtering and imprisoning Native Americans, whilst Comanche war parties are raiding havoc on white settlers - murdering the entire family of homestead housewife Mrs Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike).
“The first thing to say about Hostiles is that it is devastatingly brutal
In the midst of all this, the stern, revered, yet utterly drained Army Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) has been tasked with one final job before his retirement - the humiliation of having to escort the dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a man he loathes, a thousand miles north to his tribal lands in Montana. These are the orders straight from the President in Washington, and the captain’s refusal would mean losing his honour and, worse, his pension. Blocker assembles his horseback team of both closely trusted friends (Rory Cochrane; Jonathan Majors) and ragtag misfits, who chain up the chief and his family, rescue the traumatised Mrs Quaid from her scorched home and set off on the treacherous mission. Comanche warriors lurk the hills…
Such is the tendency with the modern-day, so-called “revisionist” westerns, that it feels inevitable for the narrative to arc a certain way. Over the past few decades, there has been established in Hollywood a long overdue recognition that the westward expansion was terrible crime inflicted upon the Native people by the US. While Hostiles, correctly, subscribes to this idea, its navigation of this historical viewpoint comes off as careful and calculated. The plot feels too rigidly determined by what “can” happen (the white protagonists learning to respect indigenous people’s rights), and what “can’t” (any notion of slipping into a “white saviour” narrative), in a respectable politically correct film in 2018. Whilst I admire Hostiles’ intentions in telling the story of the white man’s crimes, the tone feels a little shallow and inorganic, and the film fails to expand beyond these parameters and say something more interesting about the Cheyenne.
Hostiles, directed by Scott Cooper (whose 2015 Black Mass also handled heavy violence) does successfully capture the deep despair and exhaustion of the American West at this time, in the soldiers, frontier-people and Native Americans. A pervading pessimistic tone marks the first half of the movie, and the struggle for the land no longer seems worth it for those involved.
“Such is the tendency with the modern-day, so-called “revisionist” westerns, that it feels inevitable for the narrative to arc a certain way
Joe and Mrs Quaid share with each other their grief and confusion of how God could apparently forget about this part of the country and its people. The film’s second half struggles to get into gear, as it strives for a development in the characters’ relationships: between Joe and Mrs Quaid, and between the white characters and Yellow Hawk’s family. These developments feel somewhat forced, and are not as emotionally compelling as they should be. Joe’s men learn important, thought-provoking lessons about indigenous people, but there is not enough exploration as to how or why. The characters befall many awful deaths and shallow graves, but these moments fail to pack a real punch for the viewer.
Verdict: Hostiles is beautifully shot, and capitalises on the landscapes of this naturally awe-inspiring portion of the United States. Bale and Pike lead an impressive cast whose acting elevates each scene. This is far from a bad film, and it leaves the viewer to ponder the human toll of this recent chapter in history – with lingering shots on the national flag flying at forts driving home that, yes, this is America. It’s a solid, competent western, just held back by a patchy plot and a lack of imagination.