FILM REVIEW – HOSTILES. With Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Rosamund Pike, Jesse Plemons. Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R for strong violence, and language. 134 minutes.
Handsomely mounted and well-acted, HOSTILES still has all the bearing of an “eat your vegetables” movie. It’s a message movie, and it’s not at all subtle about delivering that message. Those not in the mood for its sermon may find the film slow-going.
Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) has had a long career as an Indian fighter – it was his “job” he keeps insisting – when he’s given the assignment to escort Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to his traditional land. Yellow Hawk is terminally ill and has been living on a reservation, but now in a spirit of conciliation, the military wants to assist his final journey.
Blocker has no interest, even willing to risk court-martial, since Yellow Hawk was a fierce fighter who killed many of Blocker’s fellow soldiers. Blocker is told in no uncertain terms that he will follow orders. Along the way, they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family we see brutally slaughtered by the Apaches in the film’s opening sequence. When they first see her, she’s clutching the bloody corpse of her infant.
So what’s the point? Along the way Blocker, Quaid, and Yellow Hawk discover each other’s humanity and eventually find themselves working together against both Apache raiders and vicious white settlers. Love overcomes hate, but not before most of the characters we encounter are killed. It’s not the message that’s the problem but the way it’s delivered. Yellow Hawk makes profound observations, Quaid recovers her religious faith, and the stoic Blocker comes to realize that he and his former enemy have more in common than either does with the people they’re fighting. They killed, rightly or wrongly, for a cause they believed was just. The people they face in the film – Indian and white settlers – are just savages.
Between shootouts there’s much agonizing talk as some of the soldiers admit they are not proud of some of the things they have done. Yellow Hawk’s family attempts to reach out to Quaid, empathizing with her suffering. And, at film’s end, the few survivors are better people for having faced their demons.
The problem is that it’s all rather schematic, no matter how artfully staged and shot. Revisionist westerns that recognize that the treatment of the native tribes is America’s original sin are nothing new. Movies like “Broken Arrow” (1950), “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964), and “Little Big Man” (1970), have raised these issues. And, like those earlier movies, “Hostiles” – while sympathetic to its Native American characters – keeps its focus on the white characters, and how they become, in the current jargon, “woke” to the realities the Indians have faced.
Bale, Studi, and Pike, as well as the supporting cast, offer up strong performances, but the characters remain object lessons rather than full-bodied people. You may feel virtuous for having watched “Hostiles,” but you may find yourself a hankering for a John Wayne movie afterward.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.