Written by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane
Stating white Americans have a rough history with the indigenous population here in the United States would be quite an understatement. Filled with plenty of life lost on both sides but the complete decimation being one-sided, any tale trying to take on this relationship has plenty of heavy lifting to do. A grand feat to take on but Hostiles gives a decent attempt at trying to tell an enlightening story of a coming together but without all of the hope generally found in these types of films.
On the cusp of retirement, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) gets commissioned by his superior and President Harrison to take Cheyenne Chief leader, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to live out the rest of his days while battling cancer. With Blocker’s initial disdain for the charge considering his hate for the indigenous, he must take on the job and while no love exists between the two men, they must work together along with the rest of their squadron to get from New Mexico to Montana.
Experiences inform one’s point of view and the way our protagonist, Blocker, views the indigenous people of this nation comes from the prism of fighting in wars against them. He has shed their blood but they have also killed many of his colleagues, especially Yellow Hawk, who has vanquished more than a fair few of them in his time. The same could be said the other way around in how Yellow Hawk perceives Blocker. It’s what makes this mission tense for all parties involved and propels this story along. As you can imagine, the treacherous journey up to Montana means they will eventually have to team up to simply survive with many groups in the way he would love nothing more than to vanquish both of them. This sets the table for what these two must undergo and that’s before adding in the variables of the squadron they begin with and who they add along the way.
As a road trip story through the old west, this film comes with plenty of trademarks seen in Westerns, which includes more patient pacing, long stretches of land traversed and a general tension lying between all parties involved. However, this film does struggle with the aforementioned pacing and the overall dour demeanor of the feature. Yes, the story becomes about how these individuals learn to move away from their preconceived notions of each other and move away from it in trying to find some level of respect between them. The pacing of the feature does not do it any favors seeing as the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi sets to create this languid feel to their journey with long hot days on the horizon. Perhaps it does too good of a job considering several segments of the feature feel like quite the slog to get through. The runtime, in addition, does not help in contributing to the film feeling like a grind to get through.
Even with the biases held by all parties towards each other, most of these characters deal with the horrific trauma they have felt at the hands of the other side. From Rosalee (Rosamund Pike) who loses her husband to members of the Comanche tribe and all others when encountering each other on the battlefield. Plenty of pain and bloodshed rests in the past with these individuals and trying to get past it becomes such a challenge. The pain felt cannot be erased but hopefully, it can be overcome for the good of the group. Everyone in the group falls in a different part of the spectrum ranging from pure hatred to general acceptance with the trauma they have experienced serving as certainly a mitigating factor in their placement. Regardless of it all, they need each other at this moment, whether they like it or not.
The biggest highlight of the feature comes from the conversations held between the characters. Whether it be Blocker with Yellow Hawk or with the other members of the squadron in taking in the perspectives, this film relies on these conversations. With some moments filled with action where they get attacked and needing to protect themselves, the quieter moments in-between display the character work going on in the feature, and when it hits moments of growth for these characters it works so well. These different perspectives make for a richer film, especially when bringing in the more radical members of the group into the fold.
Hostiles can certainly be distilled into a feature about people learning to break down their perceptions of each other, but this film refuses to make this trip some life-changing experience. Neither side becomes fully changed in their worldview because of a short span of time, but the baseline of respect gets built, which can always be attained through some small conversations. This film does not seek to fix Native and white American relations but rather tear down a wall where a small basis of respect can at least exist. With this goal, it certainly succeeds.