‘Hostiles’ Is A Hot Potato

by Warren Cantrell on January 25, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

Suffering under the burden of a culturally explosive topic in an all-too-short feature format, Hostiles takes a big, earnest bite out of its subject matter, even if it is only able to chew and swallow a portion of the intended. The story of an unlikely band of soldiers, civilians, and Natives on an impromptu road trip, the film grapples with themes pertaining to post-war reconciliation, genocide, honor, and what it means to transcend notions of “other.”

Christian Bale stars as U.S. Army Captain Joseph Blocker, a veteran of over two decades of clashes with various Native American tribes in the “old west.” It’s 1892, and Blocker is on the verge of retirement when he’s ordered to accompany legendary war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and the chief’s family on a days-long journey through treacherous territory. The war between the U.S. government and the various native tribes indigenous to the country is largely concluded by this point, and while Blocker still fights the battle in his own heart, every minute of every day, most of the soldiers he travels with seem fatigued with it all.

Jaded by years of battles with Yellow Hawk, Blocker takes no chances, and insists on shackling his native charges for the journey, despite the fact that they are all on the same team, as it were. Not long after they depart, Blocker, Yellow Hawk, and their cavalry coterie encounter a shell-shocked woman, Mrs. Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who recently watched as her husband and three children died at the hands of a different band of natives still in the area. Blocker brings Mrs. Quaid along with the group for her own safety, and together, they endure attacks from natives and whites alike.

Although Hostiles opens with a brutal native-led attack on the Quaid family, playing up a classic 20th century cinematic trope of civilization in danger at the hands of indigenous savages, to the film’s credit, the good/evil dynamics are anything but clear-cut. Director Scott Cooper takes pains to demonstrate that Blocker and his U.S. Army ilk have as much blood on their hands as any native tribe, and while there are some bloodthirsty natives out there, there is just as much menace (if not more) from white soldiers, trappers, and ranchers in the area.

Somewhat predictably, Mrs. Quaid, Blocker, and the cavalry soldiers are leery of Yellow Hawk and his small clan to start, yet begin to bond with them as their shared tribulations force them to realize that they are all pulling in the same direction. Indeed, some of the soldiers, like Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), are already well down this path, and have begun to question the toll their government’s policies have taken on their collective souls.

To be fair, this is all a bit of a stretch. Critical thinking on this level would have been rare (though not unheard of) at this time and place, and although Cooper sells these moments and emotions, it is one of several hurdles Hostiles has to clear in just 125-ish minutes. Likewise, by the early 1890s, the vast majority of the roving, warring tribes within the continental U.S. were pacified and confined to reservations (much as Yellow Hawk is), which makes the presence of the boogey-men Comanche here a bit out of place. Yet it is clear that the movie is less concerned with historical accountability than it is in telling a story about transcending racial constructs and personal demons.

Blocker starts Hostiles as a “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” type, and slowly begins to see the humanity in Yellow Hawk and his family, as does Mrs. Quaid, who has a tough row to hoe in this regard since she opens the film in mid-massacre. The character arcs that these folks experience do feel a bit rushed considering the weight of the cultural burdens they carry, and the brief time that’s allotted to allow them to change their worldview, yet it never comes across as hackneyed. And while the story and its themes might have been better served in a limited miniseries to draw this out a bit more, by the end of the picture, the growth seems earned.

Visually, Hostiles is stunning, and makes wonderful use of the rocky, frostbitten terrain of New Mexico and Colorado. It must have been tempting to let the vast stretches of desert, peppered with brush and mountainous crags, shine through in all their beauty; yet Cooper and his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, rein things in: bleaching much of the color out of the film. Gorgeous, to be sure, yet this land is also treacherous and unforgiving, and is presented in a washed-out template that mutes most of the colors in a way that connects many of the thematic dots.

The performances are all, to a person, magnificent, and helps to fill in any gaps created by the thematic elements of the script. Jesse Plemons reunites with his Program co-star Ben Foster to do some outstanding supporting work, as does Adam Beach in an all-too-small role as Yellow Hawk’s son. At the head of it all, Bale, Pike, and Studi carry the effort with seeming ease, and while it would have been nice to hear more from Studi and his character’s family (this is something of a white-guilt fable without their agency), the film makes do with the little time it has to spend on all of this.

Opening this week, Hostiles isn’t likely to make a run at any awards statues, despite its conspicuous release schedule, yet that shouldn’t matter. It tells a difficult story in a capable manner, and never flinches in the face of tough (nay, treacherous) themes. And while it is guilty of rushing some of the character development, and tackling things from a rigidly white perspective, it tells its story well, and looks great doing it.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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