A movie that tells you what you already know as if you didn’t already know it, Hostiles, the latest from writer-director Scott Cooper, is a Western film that stubbornly, studiously tries to elide its own genre. Hostiles very earnestly builds a case against the United States in the mistreatment of America’s indigenous people, apparently operating under the belief that most Americans in 2017 are somehow unaware of how we came to occupy and rule this country in the first place. Wouldn’t you know it: We murdered Native Americans in droves, snatched their ancestral lands from them and resolutely othered them.
Hostiles takes its message very seriously, as well it should, but to a point where the message first becomes comical, then insulting. What Cooper attempts here isn’t new—in fact, it’s quite old, a birthright of the Western genre. Since 1956, the movies have struggled to reckon with the genocide perpetrated by the United States upon the continent’s rightful inhabitants: See The Searchers, for a start, or hop forward eight years to Cheyenne Autumn. (Hell, just watch the best Western films to John Ford’s credit, and you’ll get the right idea.) With Hostiles, Cooper adds nothing to that reckoning other than loads of incoherent dialogue mumbled from behind beards and through grimaces. The film’s insistence on its own importance is embarrassing. It’s so busy trying to dignify one of America’s most revered genres that it forgets to be entertaining.
Cooper begins his story in 1892, as Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) flees from a force of Comanche, who murder her husband and three children. Miraculously, she escapes. We then cut to Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), a grizzled and decorated military man ordered by his superiors to escort Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a dying Cheyenne war chief, to his home so that he may die with dignity in the place of his birth. Blocker, to the surprise of nobody, bristles at his assignment and even goes so far as to refuse it, but he’s such a devoted soldier that try as he might he cannot abandon his duty. So Yellow Hawk and Blocker set out on an uneasy road trip, accompanied by Blocker’s men (played by Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors and Timothée Chalamet, 2017’s most ubiquitous breakout actor) as well as Yellow Hawk’s family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief and Tanya Beatty).
Hostiles’ basic framework forces it into an episodic pace, where Blocker and his charges repeatedly run into obstacles and dangers, including the Comanche responsible for slaying Quaid’s family, and of course including Quaid herself, who joins their motley crew for lack of anything better to do with her time but sing lullabies to her kids’ corpses. Most expected of all, Blocker’s proximity to people he’s spent his life killing creates tension even at the most peaceful of times. Their company is a powder keg, though the fuse is one-sided. Blocker irrationally hates every Native American he lays eyes on. We get it: He’s been to war, he’s seen awful things and the sight of those awful things again gives him cause to profile.
You’d expect Yellow Hawk to feel the same, but Hostiles’ Indian element is far less judgmental. Why is something of a mystery. The best Western films focused on race relations allow everyone their feelings, because of course America’s native tribes should be furious with Blocker and what Blocker represents. Cooper, whether out of white guilt or out of deference to the time we live in, cedes Yellow Hawk the high ground. Hostiles should be a movie where two people are forced to reconcile their ingrained enmity for one another. It should crackle with long-held hatred and grudges. Instead it contents itself to be inert, the monotony of its journey interrupted on occasion by morose and remorseful overtures about what a life spent watching people die can do to a man.
Ostensibly, anyways. You can tell a Cooper movie by how clearly his actors enunciate their lines. Here, as in his 2013 effort Out of the Furnace, Cooper mistakes inarticulateness with gravity: The lower the register his cast members speak in, the more profound his dialogue must be. Apart from being plain old annoying, the film’s insistence on inaudible speech has the effect of muting its performances. Has Bale ever been better here? It’d sure be nice to hash that one out, but it’s hard to say since every word that comes out of his mouth sounds like it’s been put through a hydraulic press. The saving graces here are Studi, plus Beach and Kilcher, who for whatever reason aren’t forced to feed their lines into a fucking mangler.
But Hostiles lets Studi and its entire Native American cast down. Cooper treats them at times as window dressing, and at others as plot devices, convenient foils for the racist white American soldiers who need to have their eyes opened. Blocker becomes a better man for helping them. This is fine as the film’s narrative core, if clichéd, but Cooper never lets his Native American characters be characters. They are chemical catalysts for growth in Hostiles’ stars, Bale and Pike. If the film’s brazen pomposity and its staunch refusal to supply any of the pleasures for which the Western is known and loved weren’t frustrating enough, its timid approach to race relations feels like a middle finger to the best of its genre—as well as to good taste.
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Adam Beach, Jonathan Majors, Ben Foster, Stephen Lang, Q’orianka Kilcher, Xavier Horsechief, Tanya Beatty, Timothée Chalamet, Peter Mullan, Scott Wilson
Release Date: December 22, 2017
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.