Hostiles: Eulogy for the Old West

An embittered Army captain must escort a hated adversary to his distant homeland in Hostiles (2017), written and directed by Scott Cooper, based on a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart. Hostiles is a “revisionist” Western in the vein of Unforgiven (1992) and No Country for Old Men (2007). It is stark, gritty, and violent, focusing on survival in the vast western expanse. It is also a near-perfectly executed film; its main flaw being a tedious run time of two hours and 14 minutes.

In a remote outpost in New Mexico, Col. Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) sends Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) on one final mission. The U.S. Army has kept Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family prisoner, but now the Cheyenne chief is elderly and cancer-ridden. Capt. Blocker and a small detail must escort them to Montana’s Valley of the Bears. Blocker, on the verge of retirement, reluctantly agrees, despite decades of brutal warfare with the chief and his tribe.

Their journey is complicated when they come upon Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family was slaughtered by rampaging Comanches. Together, they must overcome hardships and their own prejudices if they are to survive and make it to their destination. They encounter hostile Indians, hostile whites, and raging monsoons, and leave a trail of bodies in their path.

Hostiles‘ story is about as straightforward as you can get: the protagonists travel from point A to point B, overcome obstacles along the way, and arrive at their destination with their perspectives changed. It would receive an A+ in any college screenwriting course. The film pays homage to the great Westerns that inspired it, at one point even taking a line of dialogue straight from Unforgiven: “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled at one point,” says Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane).

The film takes place in 1892, less than two years after the Wounded Knee Massacre that ended the Indian Wars, which lasted for more than 30 years. The characters mention Wounded Knee several times when reflecting on their past. Yet the nation is already moving on, as evidenced by Minnie, wife of Lt. Col. Ross McCowan, lamenting the atrocities committed against American Indian tribes. She does this in front of Rosalee Quaid, whose husband and three children, including a baby cradled in her arms, were shot down in cold blood by Comanches. Rosalee seems to (unrealistically) take it in stride.

Putting the past to bed is a major theme in Hostiles. At one point, the group stops at Fort Winslow, where they take custody of Sergeant Philip Wills (Ben Foster), who is awaiting court martial for massacring a Native American family. In contrast with Capt. Blocker, Wills is unable to let go of his hatred and his desire for revenge. “It could have just as easily been you tied to this tree,” he tells Blocker.

But Blocker has metaphorically freed himself by cooperating with Chief Yellow Hawk and coming to terms with his past. Yellow Hawk, for his part, seems resigned to his fate. These warriors, who fought each other for so long, are all moving on to one final destination or another.

If Hostiles suffers from anything, it’s long stretches of inaction that do nothing to forward the plot. This movie could have easily shaved off 30 minutes of screen time, or used that screen time to develop the relationship between Capt. Blocker and Mrs. Quaid. There’s a kernel of intimacy there, most clearly expressed in a short scene in which the two share a PG-rated moment. Including a bit more romance wouldn’t have hurt. Life isn’t always so bleak and depressing.

In the end, Hostiles feigns moral ambiguity through constant illusions to characters’ past transgressions, but it’s always clear who wears the white hats and who wears the black. In that sense, it is a classic Western adapted for contemporary audiences. Hidden under this dark, violent facade is the simple story of a hero’s journey, and simplicity is what makes this film so appealing.

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