Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a brutal dissection of the invasion of the West by the United States military and settlers. An endless cycle of violence between Native Americans and those intent on wiping away their existence is meant to shock, even if the acts that occur don’t phase some the movie’s battle-drained characters. A merciless look into slaughter and uncertain survival, the film will paralyze you from its opening moments and keep you in a cringing daze until its conclusion.
Hostiles starts off as Captain Block (Christian Bale) is made to accompany a long sworn enemy — Chief Yellow Hawk — and members of his family back to his ancestral lands so that he may die peacefully from cancer. It’s a PR move approved by the President himself in order to appease some of the public who are incensed by the way Native Americans have been treated over the years, and though Block’s outright hatred for Native Americans runs deep, when threatened with losing his pension he is bitterly coerced into complying. Men of few words and barbarous actions permeate every corner of this film. However, the horror of sudden loss is best showcased by the shell-shocked Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike of Gone Girl), a frontier woman who joins the group when Block’s party finds her in their path. Her despondent and erratic disposition lends her an unpredictable air that most women in the midst of men fighting do not possess. Although not capable of rendering situations under her control, she at least grabs onto what modicum of power and defense that she can. Pike’s sorrowful and defiant temperament balances out the often fatigued soldiers.
Bale’s Block is a hot-blooded, dysphoric mess who doesn’t know how to process feelings or experiences anymore — combat frames his entire personality, and only with time spent fighting alongside Native Americans can he see their way to being anywhere akin to himself. Bale’s performance is an astute, almost anthropological study in how one becomes used to violence as the ultimate tool of power. The eventual weakening of his facade betrays a glimpse into how even the most hardened among us can still believe that there is potential buried beneath all of the filth of the world.
Bale and Ben Foster starred together in the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the abrupt appearance of Foster is enough to send up immediate red flags not to trust his character at any turn. Coming into the party as a prisoner needing transport to a nearby town for execution, Foster’s insistence that the crimes he has committed are no different than those of his captors is persuasive, but his edging about not being a threat is downright laughable when so many terrible things have befallen everyone on this trek.
The Native American women related to Chief Yellow Hawk have minimal parts, but display empathy and kindness towards Rosalie that at least imbues them with viable human qualities. As Yellow Hawk, Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo: An American Legend) brings poised solemnity and convincing introspection into the midst of feverish action, while a barely-recognizable Rory Cochrane (Empire Records, Dazed and Confused) is one of Block’s right hand men, one who has little to no recollection of the countless government sanctioned murders that have hollowed his soul out. Cochrane’s dutiful soldier and Corporal Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors) are different versions of Block — soldiers at the end of their careers and up to their ears in the blood of others.
Masanobu Takayanagi’s ethereal cinematography explores vast swatches of untamed backwoods, with color saturated splendor and campfire licked woods that contain ever-lurking jeopardy. A bit too much time is designated to the white military men talking about their callous pasts, pitying their cynicism about taking lives, and the audience wearies with the multiple deadly attacks on the Block and Yellow Hawk party, but much like the recent Western Slow West, it demonstrates how dangerous any given decision could be in the lawless wilderness. White men’s culpability plays heavily into Hostiles, but the film gives no space for any kind of true atonement. There are only weak and ineffective apologies from these grizzled men who have murdered their way West.
Residual anger and guilt linger over the entire group as everyone is already aware of their mortality and their misdeeds from the outset of the journey. Violence isn’t rationalized or glorified, but instead conveyed in a blunt, reactionary manner that gives every death a sense of pointlessness. Hostiles is an admirably-executed work about accessing the damage done to the collective psyche of western America in the late 19th century following the blood-soaked expulsion of Native Americans. The casualties are relentless, but give way to weighty interactions of subtle emotional resonance. There is no making amends, and Hostiles makes it clear that the innumerable atrocities will remain affixed to the land and the people who call it home.