The Western, metaphorically, is a genre that allows us to question what type of person we want to be. The reason that we as an American society have always been obsessed with it is because in a world where there are no laws, no society, and the loosest sense of religion (most churches were hundreds of miles apart), the only thing that would require you to be a good person and live by a sense of morality was your own conscience. We love Westerns because we’d love to believe that in this world with these rules (or lack thereof), we would act appropriately, like John Wayne or Gary Cooper. However, as time has passed, and we began to atone for the things that really went on during this time and this period, we began to question what we did, why we did it, and whether we’d failed as a society. These are the questions raised by Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, the film that allowed him to come into his own as a director and explore great themes with a great story.
It is 1892, and the war between the United States Army and the Native Americans is finally coming to an end. The last of the Native American soldiers have been rounded up, ready for punishment as workers, prisoners, or execution. Nobody hates the Natives more than Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), one of Army’s most brutal and jaded commanders. However, when an order comes from President Benjamin Harrison regarding a publicity stunt involving the return of a dying Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to his tribal burying ground, Blocker is reluctantly put in charge. What follows is a quest across four states between two vociferous enemies, risking rain, the terrain, rival tribes, and more as they also deal with a prisoner who must be taken in for sentencing (Ben Foster) and a grieving widow who lost her family to Comanche Indians (Rosamund Pike).
The reason the American West is such a popular place to set morality tales (High Noon, The Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma, etc.) is because the West is often the place where we find the worst of ourselves. There’s a reason it is constantly referred to, both in Hostiles and elsewhere, as “godless” – with a lack of society, laws, religion, or morals (or perhaps it is because of these concepts), humans are left to their own devices, and quite frankly, we have a tendency to give into our worst impulses. And this is exactly what Cooper wishes to explore here. This isn’t some romanticized John Ford classic, nor is it even a conflicted Clint Eastwood counterpoint. No, this is a Cormac McCarthy-esque moral downer: an experiment in using the worst of humanity to find the beauty in our flaws. More specifically, Cooper wants to show us inside the mind of a racist. He wants to explore how killing makes people monsters, no matter who they are, who they’re killing, or what justification they believe they have. There’s a very particular reason the very first two scenes of the film feature a tribe of Comanche Indians massacring a young family of pioneers and then a scene of Army soldiers torturing a family of Native Americans. The message is clear: through our thoughtless actions throughout the years, on both sides (although like the family in the beginning, it was the pioneers that fired the first shot), we have slowly driven each other into savagery; and while the Natives may be the ones given the nickname “savages,” the film questions who it is that truly deserves that title.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this film is the fact that it is an emotionally driven Western. While most Westerns are designed to challenge either your mind (like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or No Country for Old Men) or your gut (like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Stagecoach, or High Noon), Hostiles seems designed to challenge your heart. Sure, it requires a lot of thought-provocation – there are several allegories, both wonderfully subtle (a climactic sequence takes place on a ranch that I described as Cliven Bundy-esque even before he ended up back in the news) and painfully on-the-nose (there’s a monologue by a general’s wife that may be accurate in its descriptions, but feels out of place in 1890s Oklahoma) – and there are more than a few moments that rise up from your gut and make you want to stand and cheer, but mostly this movie wants you to feel. It wants you to understand where the divisions between men come from. It wants you to feel the realization that most of the time, other people are all we’ve got to face off against the harsh terrain that we called life. And it wants us to feel the weight of the decisions we’ve made in our lives. This is an emotional, powerful movie that builds and builds until the mere suggestion of a hopeful tomorrow makes your heart soar. This is a unique, special film that appeals to the soul in a way its genre rarely does.
Among the cast, there really are no weak links. This is arguably one of the best performances of Christian Bale’s career, emotionally charged and deserving of empathy even at his most monstrous. So much of his performance comes from the eyes, and it’s the kind of acting they need to teach in drama school. Meanwhile, Rosamund Pike is otherworldly as a grieving widow, demonstrating a complete arc of growth and emotion in a two-hour running time. She outdoes her performance in Gone Girl, and delivers single-handedly the biggest cheer-inducing moment of the year. And Wes Studi rounds out the leads with a sympathetic general looking back on his life as he nears his last days. He doesn’t get the breakout moment that Bale and Pike get, but he does manage to play the subtler role with great panache. Other great performances include Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, and Jonathan Majors as Bale’s team, Ben Foster as the opposite side of Bale’s racist coin, Adam Beach as Black Hawk, and Bill Camp in a small cameo. Quite frankly, there really are no weak links in this ensemble.
Hostiles is a deeply heartfelt film that pushes the boundaries of what the Western genre can be. It uses its vast landscapes, powerful performances, and profound grasp on American history to tell a moving, powerful story that transcends the screen, feeling visceral in a way only special films ever can. The film opens with the declaration “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” This is the case when we meet Blocker. We hope it is not the case when we leave him.