It’s hardly “Heaven’s Gate,” but there’s a similar grandiosity of ambition — and a familiar sense of folly — to Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles,” a $40 million, independently produced, sure-to-be-R-rated Western in a marketplace where even a more broadly appealing oater, like Seth MacFarlane’s tongue-in-cheek “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” can barely earn that kind of money back. But “Hostiles” is no spoof; it’s a deadly serious examination of the strained relationship between white men and Native Americans in this country, one that acknowledges the racism and brutality the U.S. Army showed to frontier tribes, while giving a bigoted cavalry officer played by Christian Bale a chance to redeem himself.
Debuting at the Telluride film festival without a distributor in place, this impressively mounted, intellectually corrupt period piece isn’t your traditional Western, and clearly fancies itself a revisionist take on so many black-and-white us-vs.-them tales, in which unambiguously heroic white men protect their women and children from red-skinned enemies. But just how progressive is a movie that draws a false equivalency between individual Indian attacks and large-scale, government-sanctioned genocide?
So, while taking a much harder edge to the feel-good hug-an-Indian West of “Dances With Wolves,” “Hostiles” ultimately falls back on the same one-dimensional archetypes, depicting Native Americans either as ruthless savages or as stoic sages, with nothing in between. And though it basically argues that the surest way to overcome racism is to spend some time getting to know “the other,” Cooper’s film offers audiences no such opportunity, depriving its native characters of so much as a single scene in which they are treated as anything more than abstract plot devices in service of the white folks’ enlightenment.
By contrast, the film is exceptionally well-attuned to the complexity of its white characters — especially Bale, who’s tanned-leather tough as a character who doesn’t verbalize much, but given so much strong-silent screentime, viewers can read volumes into his performance — and their anti-Native-American hatred is nearly always “justified” by backstory. For example, after learning that Bale’s character was once left for dead with a Kiowa war spear in his gut, can anyone blame him for taking bloodthirsty delight in the extermination of his enemies? And after witnessing how Comanches use a pioneer family for target practice, who could fault Rosalee Quaid (Rosamund Pike) for being traumatized by the next group of natives to cross her path?
The premise here is that both characters, Capt. Joseph Blocker (Bale) and Rosalee, have reason to hate Native Americans, but that such hostility is bad, and to facilitate their awakening, the movie invents a cross-country journey in which both are forced to travel with a group of Cheyenne prisoners (including native stars Adam Beach and Q’orianka Kilcher, who barely register as characters). Though he’d actually prefer being court martialed to fulfilling the assignment, Blocker reluctantly agrees to escort chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to Montana, so the old warrior can die on his own land.
Back in his time, Yellow Hawk was a vicious killer of white men, and it offends Blocker’s principles to let someone like him go free (a mile or so from the fort, he pulls out a pair of very large knives and debates whether to serve his own brand of justice then and there). But, convenient to the story (yet never satisfactorily explained), the once-proud chief has been mellowed by cancer and seven years in an Army prison, and now, he’s fit to serve as the exception who challenges Blocker’s stereotypes — “the good Indian” whose company will bring Blocker and his band of racist cavalry officers around (as if there’s any sacrifice that can absolve them of the part they played in the battle of Wounded Knee).
“Those were the good old days,” says Blocker’s oldest friend, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who made his first kill at age 14. Something happens to a man when he’s seen and caused that much death, and Cooper is clearly invested in trying to explore that aspect of the American character, whose soul “has never yet melted,” per the D.H. Lawrence quotation that introduces the film. (“Hostiles” has a curious provenance, “based upon the manuscript by Donald Stewart,” the screenwriter of “Missing” and “The Hunt for the Red October,” who died 18 years ago, and it’s hard to know just how much of the original material remains.)
At one point, Metz refers to the time “I was fightin’ for the Grays” — slang for his days as a Confederate soldier. But the fact that he and Blocker are friends implies that the captain has previously found it possible to forgive his rivals. Why should it be any different with Native Americans? What’s more, the movie goes out of its way to include a scene in which he tells a badly wounded, black-skinned Buffalo Soldier, Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), that he’s the best soldier he’s ever known — as if to illustrate the selectivity of his racial hatred.
Still, these were different times in America’s past, and peaceful coexistence didn’t seem plausible at the time — a point Cooper reminds by forcing Blocker to endure a liberal diatribe over dinner with Lt. Colonel Ross McCowan (Peter Mullan), as his wife (Robyn Malcolm) verbalizes a more progressive modern view. In 1892, however, white settlers found themselves under constant threat of being shot and scalped, playing a defensive game against the local “savages” — terrifyingly illustrated in “Hostiles’” opening scene, in which a group of Comanches ride up to a homestead and slaughter all but Rosalee, who barely escapes with her own life.
It’s not every director who can show three kids (including an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes) perforated by bullets without so much as flinching, but that’s Cooper’s M.O., refined over the three films since his relatively marshmallowy “Crazy Heart”: As in “Black Mass” before this, violence packs more punch if depicted matter-of-factly, which somehow registers as “realistic” these days (although one suspects that it would be far more horrifying if his victims suffered slow, agonizing deaths after being shot).
Cooper’s style is undeniably elegant, from its unhurried pace (in which heavily accented characters let long silences fill the space their lines) to the rich, widescreen imagery (positively stunning, its landscapes ranging far beyond the de-facto Monument Valley vistas so often seen in Westerns). Making the most of that scenery, DP Masanobu Takayanagi eschews closeups in favor of carefully blocked, painterly compositions. This was the effect “War for the Planet of the Apes” was going for, though Cooper isn’t asking audiences to acknowledge his good taste, but simply giving them room, both physical and emotional (and further encouraged by Max Richter’s restrained tonal score), to project themselves onto the scene.
That’s one of the reasons some viewers have found the film to be so profound: Because they themselves are profound, and the movie demands that its audiences flesh out what is left unspoken by its rugged characters (whose tough-to-understand lines ought to be subtitled in the same old-timey typeface used to translate the Cheyenne dialogue). Pike is especially terrific, delivering what could well be her best performance, as a woman who suffers a crippling loss and still manages to feel so much (though her character retreats into the background in the film’s final third). And Ben Foster, typecast as a demented Indian-killer, manages to complicate the question of what makes his character a psychopath and Bale’s a hero — to which Blocker’s answer, “I was just doing my job,” seems wholly inadequate. But why should Foster’s psychopath deserve such consideration, when the natives barely register as people? And why should audiences allow themselves to care for characters whom Cooper has no qualms about killing?
Be warned, the last paragraph of this review addresses the ending. Pretty much everybody dies in “Hostiles,” as if the alternative (survival) might be considered too sentimental for Cooper’s ruthless cred. Body count aside, “Hostiles” also features a happy ending, albeit one whose politics are the most problematic of any film this year. Though the last shot inspired applause at the Telluride film festival, think about what it is really saying. Bale’s character is a monster, as can be said of anyone who takes pleasure in killing, and though it’s satisfying to see him transformed, the movie isn’t at all clear about how or why — or even at what point — that happens. Cooper shows restraint at times (keeping the rape scene off screen, for example), but it’s empathy that’s called for.