Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Timothée Chalamet, Q'orianka Kilcher, Stephen Lang, Ben Foster, Peter Mullan, Bill Camp
MPAA Rating: (for strong violence, and language)
Running Time: 2:13
Release Date: 12/22/17 (limited); 1/5/18 (wider); 1/19/18 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 4, 2018
There are no good men in Hostiles, until it's convenient for those men to become good. There are men of honor and dedication, for certain, but the problem is that they have honored and been dedicated to the cause of killing and forcibly moving the indigenous people of the territories of the growing United States of America.
As for the Native Americans in the movie, there is a gang of thieving and murdering wanderers, as well as the dying chief of a diminishing tribe and his family. This juxtaposition feels like a very calculated move on the part of writer/director Scott Cooper, giving a justification for the past actions of the story's American soldiers and an opportunity for those soldiers to seek forgiveness for those actions.
The story, set in 1892, is told almost exclusively from the soldiers' perspective, although there's also a woman whose entire family is killed by the wandering gang in the movie's brutal opening minutes. This puts a lot of weight on the few Native American characters who are actually deemed worthy of having some dialogue. Their presence and attitude serve as the catalyst for the mainly white characters to change their own attitude about the native people of this country. The chief and his family aren't really characters here. They exist as icons—decent people with their own troubled past and uncertain future, who just happen to have a different skin color, speak a different language, and possess a different spiritual outlook.
There's no denying that Cooper's intentions here are good. We can tell because a few of the white characters offer speeches and brief monologues about the injustice the government has perpetrated against the indigenous people of the land for decades—centuries, if one counts the people who arrived here before the formation of the U.S. All of it sounds good, but it also seems hollow, considering that there's another side of this conflict that isn't provided a chance to offer its side of the story.
Basically, there are good Native American characters (the chief and his family) and bad ones (the gang of killers and thieves), while the rest of ensemble of characters have the freedom to exist in between those two extremes. Take Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), the central protagonist. He's a man who expresses hatred for the indigenous people of the country and, in his first appearance, oversees worse, as the men under his command rope up a man and taunt his family in order to bring them to a prison camp. His reasons are simple: It's his duty to do this work, and in the course of his job, he has seen a lot of his friends and comrades killed.
The entire story (based on a manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart) is about Blocker's change. His final order is to transport Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his immediate family from the prison to their homeland, so that the chief, who has developed cancer, may die and be buried in peace. Blocker has fought against Yellow Hawk a few times in the past, and the only thing that convinces him to carry out this mission is a threat against his pension.
Blocker is rough on the family at first, having his men place Yellow Hawk's family in chains, even though they pose no threat to Blocker or his squad. Blocker's change from a man who is quite fine with the treatment and eventual annihilation of indigenous people happens rather quickly and with no obvious impetus. One supposes that Cooper, realizing how much ground there is to cover between the Blocker at the beginning and the Blocker at the end, simply expected that we would accept such a tremendous change, since it's obvious that's where the character is heading anyway.
The other significant character is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who witnesses the cold-blooded slaughter of her husband and three daughters by a gang of Comanche (One of Yellow Hawk's more significant lines of dialogue has him condemning that tribe, simply to give us the good/bad dichotomy in words). Blocker's squad finds her and takes her along, mainly so that she, too, can change her opinion on Native Americans (She's terrified of Yellow Hawk's family at first).
Most of the story is made up of detours from Blocker's primary mission: a few encounters with the Comanche, a prisoner transport, a rescue of the group's women from some fur traders, and a final standoff with some people who have made the chief's land their own. The most fascinating one is the section with the prisoner (played by Ben Foster), who has been convicted of murdering some Native Americans. It's nothing that Blocker hasn't done in the past, the prisoner points out. It's simply that the prisoner's killings took place at a time when the government's approach to treating Native Americans has adapted.
There's some hard truth to this, but it's not something that Cooper particularly wants to explore. To do that would be to put into question Blocker's words, deeds, and transition. For Hostiles to make its well-intentioned but overly simplistic point, that is that last thing that can happen.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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