By Jim Slotek
A good film is not necessarily a good time. Hostiles, a post-good-guy Western, begins in an uncomfortably old-fashioned Western way, with the massacre of a family on the 1890s American plains. There’s even a scalping.
But though the widowed wife and mother (Rosamund Pike) survives, this is not a young woman's revenge-is-sweet tale like True Grit or the rebooted The Magnificent Seven. It merely sets the sour opening note for a slowly unfolding story of a moment when America was close to losing its soul, having emerged from a Civil War to finishing the job of evicting the country’s previous tenants.
Pike, as the half-crazed widow Rosalie Quaid, is merely one of the damaged survivors of events. The key figure in Hostiles is Capt. Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a lifelong Indian fighter who is charged with the unwelcome task of accompanying a dying war chief named Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his son (Adam Beach) from federal custody back to his Cheyenne homeland.
Whatever mercy was in play during the decision, it did not wash over Blocker, who comes by his hatred organically. Unlike many racists who have virtually no personal experience with the objects of their acrimony, Blocker knows his enemy well enough to actually speak Cheyenne.
Really, Yellow Hawk and Blocker are two sides of the same coin, antagonists who once wanted the other dead. In another era, Studi’s calm would be that of a stereotypical “noble savage,” but here it’s clear he’s simply tired of killing and resigned to his fate. The war is all but over, and the only natives still fighting in the chaos are rogue bands who don’t care anymore whether their victims are white or red.
Writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) is careful about drawing lines between good guys and bad. As a flipside to the rogue Apaches, Hostiles throws in a white wild card, in the form of a former soldier (Ben Foster bringing his usual hint of menace) who carries a death sentence over his head and is taken into custody en route (and who maintains his crimes are no different than the officially-sanctioned ones committed by Capt. Blocker).
And of course, Cooper is not going to give Blocker a revelatory “moment” where he sees the error of his ways and vows to give up hate. Bale’s performance is more subtle than that. It moves from “grim” in increments. His humanity emerges only insofar as he feels duty-bound toward the odd lot of people in his charge – a broken and delusional survivor, a former deadly enemy and his family, a youngish handful of soldiers (among them, Call Me By Your Name’s Timothee Chalamet who’s in everything these days) and a potentially murderous white captive.
It would probably be more appropriate for this story of a tipping point in the Indian Wars to have aboriginal hands in the storytelling. But, between bouts of sometimes gruesome violence, the narrative has poignant moments. Rosalie bonds with the women in Yellow Hawk’s party (Q'orianka Kilcher and Tanaya Beatty). Yellow Hawk and Blocker eventually compare reluctant notes over the violence that has permeated both their lives and bloodily connects them.
Beautifully shot on location in New Mexico (home to the Apache, but not the Cheyenne), Hostiles has an elegiac quality. Some have tried to characterize is as a metaphor for the present, a country riven by division and hate, clinging to a mythic past. This may be stretching it, but Hostiles seems a more or less spiritually truthful portrait of a period in American history that gave birth to an arguably even more painful next.
Hostiles. Written and directed by Scott Cooper. Starring Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike and Wes Studi. Opens wide, Friday, January 9.