I remember seeing Unforgiven in theaters, because it was the first R-rated film I was permitted to see. I went with my old friend from Virginia, who taught me about video games, Magic cards, and let me stay up late to watch his many Simpsons tapes. He was a prince among men. And Unforgiven was a masterpiece, a movie I didn’t realize was a subversion and homage and encapsulation of Westerns in general and Clint Eastwood Westerns in particular.
I think that was the start of the true grit Western of the modern era of film.
Hostiles comes from writer/director Scott Cooper and feels inspired by the message movie and violence of Unforgiven. In 1892, we follow bearded and grizzled Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) as he is given an assignment he does not care for. He is ordered to escort Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back from New Mexico to their ancestral home in Montana.
It is complicated because Blocker hates all Natives, and Yellow Hawk in particular, as he killed many of Blocker’s friends in battle. But an order is an order. So he assembles a classic kind of ragtag group of soldiers, including a young French kid (Oscar nominee Timothée Chalamet), a Buffalo Soldier, another mustached man, and Jesse Plemons as some Southern guy. Their names aren’t that important as most don’t have characters. One that does though is Master Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), who is plumb sick of fighting.
More relevant is criminal Sergeant Wills (Ben Foster), who is also being escorted to another town. The actual plot begins when they run into Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), a woman who is the lone survivor of a Comanche attack that killed her husband and children. The movie now spends time on character development of Blocker and Rosalie through their relationship of attempted healing, the juxtaposition between Blocker and Wills, and Blocker’s changing perspective on the Natives.
There is a conflict as Yellow Hawk tries to convince Blocker to let them help against the Comanche, who will kill any of them (although this is not quite historically accurate). The monsters in the movie help calcify the complexity of Blocker, who is hateful but not a monster. Instead there is a strong focus on a redemptive arc for him. And thus lies the problem.
With the exception of Yellow Hawk, none of the Cheyenne characters really get much of a personality. And although the movie makes it clear that European settlers were responsible for a genocide, it also seems to want to teach Blocker (the white man) a lesson through the suffering of others (non white men mostly). That’s a tricky thing, and something I doubt was considered.
The lesson of complexity in the West, that America was built on the blood of the Natives, is a good and important one, not whitewashing the old movie world of the Western. And the acting here is outstanding. Christian Bale disappears into the character as usual, with a pitch perfect American accent, and Rosamund Pike is great as well as someone suffering from trauma and pain trying to find safety. The various soldiers are acted well without histrionics, and Wes Studi, a legendary character actor, is always great.
It’s an impressive movie in a lot of ways, but it can’t quite get a handle on what it wants to say. Which is a shame, because there’s so much potential there, and it only gets better as it goes, from a slow drawl to a sad, violent mess.
Hostiles has a run time of 2 hours 14 minutes and is rated R for strong violence, and language.