Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is another “revisionist” western that mistakes unremitting, mono-tonal darkness for seriousness. It’s 1892 and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) is a celebrated army hardass known for his brutal killing and capturing of Native American warriors throughout the West. At a prison in New Mexico, Blocker is ordered to transport an incarcerated Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to his rightful home in Montana, so that he may succumb to his illness in peace and dignity. Blocker and Yellow Hawk were once rivals, having slaughtered many of one another’s allies, and now find themselves in an awkward position of collaboration as they make a dangerous journey. This is the theme of many American westerns, though Cooper approaches the material with belabored solemnity.
As great as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is, it seems to have ruined the American western, a once-fluid genre now mired in brooding, speechifying, stick-figure characters, and smugly gruesome violence. There have always been literally and metaphorically dark westerns—revisionism isn’t as new as young filmmakers believe it to be—but the films also used to celebrate various textures of community, even while acknowledging the evils of genocide and imperialism that yielded America. Underneath its casual aura, Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo is a serious and moving consideration of the challenges of forging and honoring a democracy, as is John Ford’s Stagecoach, which has a narrative similar to that of Hostiles. Even Unforgiven, which is revered by younger filmmakers for its sense of despair, is a comic and colorful character study, with vignettes that resist glib sociopolitical codifying.
Rio Bravo, Stagecoach, and Unforgiven illustrate how a microcosm of society actually functions. Hostiles only accords Blocker prominence, and he’s played by Bale with the same clenched mannerisms that have defined his acting for 20 years. Bale’s caged ferocity can still be unnerving, particularly when Blocker confronts a pacifist (Bill Camp), but he’s still an actor who’s desperately in need of a role that doesn’t allow him to fetishize disconnection. Studi is a magnificent presence, as always, but he’s stuck in the role of the noble Native American who, by befriending a white soldier, implicitly lets European ancestors off the hook for their legacy of atrocity.
Blocker and Yellow Hawk’s bonding might have been moving if Cooper had dramatized it, but the arc of this relationship isn’t on screen. At the beginning of the film, Blocker is so averse to helping Yellow Hawk that he’s willing to risk a court martial. After a few skirmishes with the Comanche, Blocker and Yellow Hawk exchange respectful glances, as if they don’t already know of their respective formidability on the battlefield. Remarkably, Yellow Hawk evinces no bitterness about his situation as a prisoner, along with his family, of whites who invaded his land, as we’re meant to identify with Blocker’s resentment of Native Americans who were presumably fending off intrusion. Cooper’s aware of the thorniness of this situation, as he wishes to mount a traditional cowboys-versus-Indians film that can be acceptable in the 21st century. A modern film can’t, and shouldn’t, celebrate whites killing Native Americans, and so it must feature other tribes on the whites’ side who “approve.”
Cooper exhausts himself trying to render Hostiles politically correct, though the film would be more convincing and vital if he’d indulged his genre-fueled fantasies without so much equivocation. Fantasies are more revealing when they’re indulged without irony. It’s now fashionable to criticize John Ford’s films for their imperialist lack of empathy—a complaint that misses the point of the astonishing energy of the director’s formalism, which offers a revealing portrait of cultural moors without apology. Ulzana’s Raid and Unforgiven are disquieting for their refusal to solve social problems for us, as they dramatize the kinetic and ambiguous cruelty of American warfare, which is an extension of politics. There are several scenes in Hostiles in which white soldiers elaborately apologize to Native Americans for stealing their land, and, while poignant, they feel like a sop to contemporary priorities. If Cooper revered Cheyenne culture, he’d have accorded Yellow Hawk’s family significant screen time, rather than treating Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher like extras.
This self-consciousness could be overlooked if Hostiles was an otherwise stirring adventure, but the film moves at a funereal pace, implicitly celebrating its sluggishness as a mark of integrity. There’s quite a bit of incident in this film, but nothing ever seems to happen. A Comanche tribe is presented as an enemy only to be anticlimactically conquered. Ben Foster appears as a disgraced American soldier, doing his usual overacting before abruptly exiting the film. Rosamund Pike mopes prettily as a widow, regarding Blocker with interest and foreshadowing a romance that never materializes. And in the film’s most awkward moment, a character cribs from Unforgiven’s famous speech, saying that “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled at one point.” Throughout, the characters are fossilized by the film’s self-importance, and appear dead long before they meet their respective fates.