By A.O. Scott
December 21, 2017
“Hostiles” opens with a well-traveled observation from D.H. Lawrence about how the “essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” It ends with a shot that complicates that idea by revisiting and in effect reversing a famous image from an earlier western: The last moment of “The Searchers,” when John Wayne lingers outside the door, symbolically barred from entering the civilized society he has saved.
In between the explicitly cited Lawrence and the implicitly footnoted Wayne, the action winds from New Mexico to Montana and the modern movie audience is led on a tour of a familiar mythic landscape. Our guide, Scott Cooper, who adapted an unpublished manuscript by the screenwriterDonald E. Stewart into this handsome oater, has updated the talking points to take account of changed sensibilities. The result may not quite be a masterpiece, but it is nonetheless a credible master’s thesis, a careful and well-informed exploration of the paradoxes that are as integral to the western genre as horses, whiskey and guns. There are plenty of those things, of course, but there is also a conscientious attempt to reckon with the legacy of plunder and racism that flickers behind the legends.
Richard Slotkin, at the conclusion of his magisterial three-volume study of the West in the American imagination, notes that the western, appearances to the contrary, doesn’t have a fixed ideological meaning. We can use the mythology of the frontier, he writes, “to reify our nostalgia for a falsely idealized past,” or we can use it as a way of “imagining and speaking truth.” “Hostiles” sets out to do both. It aims for epic grandeur, ethical clarity and also a measure of historical credibility. This puts the movie in a state of contradiction with itself, like nearly every other good western and, for that matter, like the United States of America.
It’s 1892, and the Indian Wars are winding down. Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a walking embodiment of Lawrence’s archetype, has made a career of genocidal slaughter, which has left him bitter but not remorseful. Blocker is no brute: He reads Julius Caesar in the original Latin. And he hates Indians with a righteous purity that is shocking to contemplate now but was hardly abnormal in those days.
To the extent that Blocker has been a soldier doing his job, the movie regards him with sympathy, and supplies an Eastern intellectual (Bill Camp, wearing round spectacles) to sneer and judge. In general, those few white people who speak up in the movie against white brutality are viewed with contempt, even as the agents of that brutality are offered a chance at redemption. The moral economy of “Hostiles” dictates that only those who have made war can participate in the regenerative violence that leads toward peace.
Before he can collect his pension, Blocker is given what for him is a supremely distasteful mission. He must escort one of his old enemies, a dying Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk, to his ancestral lands up north. Blocker holds Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) personally responsible for the deaths of his friends and regards the government’s decision to set him free after years in captivity to be an intolerable betrayal. But duty is duty, and he gathers up a posse of fine character actors (including Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Timothée Chalamet and an especially good Rory Cochrane) to accompany the chief and his family (Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief and Tanaya Beatty).
They are soon joined by Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose family has been slaughtered by Comanches. Her presence allows Blocker to show his compassionate side and alters the relations between the Cheyenne and the soldiers. The existence of a common enemy — those Comanches, whose aggression offends both Blocker and Yellow Hawk — creates a cautious, tactical alliance that foreshadows a more comprehensive settling of differences.
The marauding Comanches are not the only villains. “Hostiles” is committed to evenhandedness and so introduces some bad white men into the mix. These include a rapacious band of fur trappers and a disgraced soldier (Ben Foster), who faces hanging as punishment for his indiscriminate killing of natives. As he points out, what he is condemned for having done is no different from what Blocker has spent his career doing. Only times and government policies have changed.
“Hostiles,” for all its earnest maneuvering to stay both true to history and on the right side of it, nonetheless sits a bit uncomfortably in the present. It is unlikely to escape notice that this is yet another tale of a white man’s conscience, which uses Yellow Hawk and his children and grandchildren as vehicles for Blocker’s awakening. Whether this awakening is complete and whether the film’s final notes of absolution are fully earned are matters worth arguing about.
And “worth arguing about” is not a bad verdict. “Hostiles” is elegantly made, with picturesque cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi and a muscular, old-style score by Max Richter. Mr. Cooper has regained his confidence after the mess of “Black Mass.” The performances are appropriately stoical, and Mr. Bale, Ms. Pike and Mr. Studi share the ability to evoke people from an earlier time without dimming their movie-star charisma.
“Hostiles” itself wants to be both a throwback and an advance, not so much a new kind of western as every possible kind — vintage, revisionist, elegiac, feminist. What makes the movie interesting is the sincerity and intelligence with which it pursues that ambition, heroically unaware that the mission is doomed from the start.