How The West Got Depressed.
Scott Cooper’s new film Hostiles presents the wild west as a depressing, violent, sexist and racist place where everything sucks. It’s easy to believe but not very interesting to watch.
Christian Bale stars as Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a soldier who slaughtered many Native Americans because they slaughtered many white people, because they slaughtered many Native Americans, and so on and so forth. Blocker doesn’t particularly care if his people started it, he just hates Native Americans so much that when he’s ordered to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying war chief, to his burial ground, he does everything he can to get out of it, and only agrees when his pension is threatened.
Like many road trip movies before it, Hostiles finds Blocker and Yellow Hawk finding common ground over a series of adventures. It just happens that these adventures involve Comanches who shoot babies in the back, psychotic American soldiers and violent kidnappings. Along the way they also pick up a widow named Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), whose tragedy is depicted in horrifyingly graphic detail.
Scott Cooper’s film has a few shootouts, some of them rather impressive, but the camera lingers longer on the forlorn faces and quiet moments of post-traumatic stress. All of the characters in Hostiles have seen and/or done terrible things and some of them have the decency to feel awful about it. In these moments, actors like Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Ben Foster and Rory Cochrane fill Hostiles with a melancholic humanity.
Unfortunately, all that impressive acting and all of Masanobu Takayanagi’s luscious cinematography are draped on top of a by-the-numbers storyline with a rather obvious message about how it’s harder to be despicable to people after you get to know them. It’s also frustrating that Bale and Pike dominate so much of the screen time when their rather obvious journey from anger to understanding has been told many times before, while the film sidelines other, more intriguing perspectives from supporting characters like Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and his wife, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), who have very little to say or do but who make a bigger impression than many of the other characters anyway.
Hostiles is a big production with a great cast but it plays like a revisionist western from several revisions ago. It doesn’t draw meaningful conclusions about the American frontier other than the fact that a lot of it sucked, and that the white people were responsible for most of that. But it also indulges in obvious stereotypes across the board, with some tribes depicted nobly and others as malevolent maniacs. For a film that seems interested in emotional nuance, it paints most of its pictures in very broad strokes, which makes it all come across as disingenuous, naive or both.