Hostiles (2017)

  • Time: 127 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | Western
  • Director: Scott Cooper
  • Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Scott Shepherd, Ava Cooper

Storyline:

In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.

2 comments

  • This classic Western dramatizes its opening quotation from D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
    Trump’s America shows no sign of its having melted yet. On the contrary, that racist, violent soul-less “soul” now holds sway. And yet, pockets of the true, great America, the land of equality, freedom and community, persist. And so does the nation’s hope for redemption.
    Writer/director Scott Cooper avoids any comfort of partisanship. If the racist, murderous rancher at the end represents the extreme of the Republicans, the simple-minded, cliched Harper’s journalist/photographer at the beginning represents — and equally diminishes — the naive “useful idiots” on the Left, aka the Democrats. The preferable idealist is the fort commander’s wife, who at the dinner table articulates her anger at the government’s abuse of the Native American — but even she is here insensitive to her guest Rosalie’s trauma.
    The world-weary hero Captain Blocker has the bloodied hands and traumatized memory of the true soldier, but he reads Julius Caesar in Latin. With a leap of humanity and trust he bestows the book on the little Indian orphan about to start a new life in the paleface Chicago.
    Unusually for the genre, there are no religious figures. The Bible is read over the white people’s burials and the Native American rites are respected for theirs. But there are no church people. Without religious institutions, faith operates strictly on the personal level. Rosalie and Blocker both believe in God. As Rosalie, who moves from seeing her family slaughtered by Indians to being raped by white trappers, admits: “If I did not have faith, what would I have?”
    Rosalie’s essential faith is not based on any church or God but in the recognition of common humanity. Her initial hatred of the “Redskins” (Washington NFL fans take note) grows from reflexive hysteria and hunger for revenge to her sense of shared vulnerability. She’s touched when the Indian woman gives her a dress. Ultimately Rosalie will pick up a rifle to defend the Apaches against the white landowner.
    This softening, this advent of empathy, grows out of life experience, either despite our through the suffering that drives people apart. After all, the title “Hostiles” refers to the entire rainbow of cultures in this film. Thus Rosalie: “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake.” To carry on, we have to carry on, preferring the challenges and complexities of life over any relief from our mortality.
    Blocker is the central moral barometer. As a soldier he has had to suspend his moral conscience: “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled. If you do it enough, you get used to it.” He begins so full of hatred that he refuses the assignment to escort the murderous Apache chief home to die. As he gets to know him, however, he comes to appreciate the old enemy’s character and dignity.
    It is possible to accept an enemy, by acknowledging his humanity. Difficult, but possible, in the face of our moral clashes. Blocker knows that the bigotry and violence inbred in our world preclude any easy freedom for anyone: “Understand this: When we lay our heads down here, we’re all prisoners.”
    That grows ever clearer as the battles — mental as well as physical — shrink Blocker’s troupe. The last scene suggests Blocker might be the Cain figure, the cursed killer doomed to rootlessness, forbidden community. That’s the typical American outlaw hero — Shane, Ethan Edwards (of The Searchers), Tom Doniphan (the man who really shot Liberty Valance) and so on. Society needs that killer in order to survive but cannot accommodate or accept him if it is to claim to be civilized.
    As he bids Rosalie and the boy goodbye Blocker seems to feel disqualified from happiness, from love, from a normal family life. But as the train pulls away he leaps on. He has rejected the finality of damnation and death, has shucked the shackles of his murderous career, and in an act of true faith resolves to join Rosalie for Chicago.
    As the film opens with Rosalie losing her first family, it ends with her assumption of a new one. Rosalie, Blocker and the boy now have a new love and self-respect forged in the heat of the brutality and savagery they have suffered, yet managed to keep their humanity intact.

  • The brutality and plaintive poetry displayed in the opening minutes of Hostiles sets the tone for what follows in writer-director Scott Cooper’s characteristically grandiose yet intimate drama. As with many a Western, life in this barely tamed wilderness is not for the faint of heart. Violence is as natural as breathing, happiness hard-won and death sudden and shocking.

    The latter certainly holds true for Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who loses her husband, her two young daughters and infant son, and home when their New Mexico homestead is attacked by a band of Comanche renegades. Meanwhile, Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) looks on as his men abuse an American Indian family they have captured as prisoners. Both Rosalee and Joseph have hate in their hearts, some would say justifiably so, but it’s that hatred that perpetuates the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence from generation to generation until that hatred becomes ingrained in the DNA. As the opening D.H. Lawrence quote notes, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

    Much of Hostiles concerns itself with the thawing of that animosity. Joseph is tasked to escort the dying Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family back to their tribal lands where he can be buried. Joseph is reluctant – he and Yellow Hawk have history, he has had friends and comrades who died at the hand of Yellow Hawk – but as his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) reminds him, Joseph faces a court martial and the loss of his pension if he refuses to carry out this presidential order. Left with no choice, Joseph selects a group of men to comprise the escort detail; they include Joseph’s oldest friend and confidante Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), West Point graduate Lieutenant Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), Buffalo soldier Corporal Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and youngster Private Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet).

    As the motley crew progress in their travels, they come across the shellshocked Rosalee, still clutching her dead infant in her hands. Somewhat surprisingly, her plight brings out the taciturn Joseph’s tender side as he convinces her to join the group, which she does despite her initial terror at the sight of Yellow Hawk and his family. As the film unfolds, unlikely alliances and sympathies form as they warily band together against the many dangers they face both from within and without.

    It’s an intriguing film, Hostiles, serving as a meditation on violence, and how such violence weighs on a man. There’s an awfully thin line between what makes one man a hero and another a killer, one a protector and another a raider. The animal instinct that allows one to survive in war is the very same that makes it difficult to adjust to everyday life. Cooper deftly uses the genre to reflect upon and question both the history of violence and race and its current state today. It’s ambitious and not always successful, but it is never less than engaging.

    Partly this is due to Japanese cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi’s painterly compositions and Max Richter’s gorgeous score, both technicians highlighting each character’s connection to this harsh but breathtaking land. Mostly the film succeeds on the strength of Bale and Studi’s performances. Bale manages to be both economic yet emotionally expansive, whilst Studi is the embodiment of dignity in the face of so much loss.

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