Director Scott Cooper makes movies about Good Men. They’re often morally compromised or reliant on violence or somehow ethically bankrupt, but the principled man led astray is Cooper’s thing, and he had Jeff Bridges doing it in Crazy Heart and Christian Bale doing it in Out of the Furnace and Johnny Depp doing it in Black Mass and now he has Bale doing it again in Hostiles.
Are these men particularly interesting? Kind of, but more because of what happens around them—less their inherent personalities than their reactions to things. Yet Cooper’s films make these men the last of their kind, the final defenders of a certain kind of compromised masculinity, respected by their enemies and inspirational to lesser men and weaker women. So it goes with Hostiles and with Bale, who gives a typically half-measured, half-intense performance of a character who is mostly pretty awful but whom the film wants to redeem for no clear reason whatsoever.
Hostiles begins with a literary quote, so you know it’s fancy: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted,” was something British novelist D. H. Lawrence (of Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, typical high school reading list material) said in 1923, and that is how Cooper frames his film, adapted from a story by Donald E. Stewart. What Cooper is indicating here—that his movie will be about gritty men doing difficult things, in the infamous deadly spirit of the West—basically comes to pass. This is another white people vs. brown people story, a story that speaks to years of brutality and bloodshed but that wants to tackle themes of forgiveness and absolution over the narrative course of a few weeks (and that takes more than a few elements from other Westerns like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven). I’m sure this will end in a nuanced, balanced way! (Spoiler: It does not.)
Bale plays Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker, a man who is 65% mustache and who is introduced watching his soldiers throw a rope around a Native American man and drag him behind their horses back to their base as the man’s family screams and wails in the background. The year is 1892, and the base is Fort Berringer in New Mexico, and Blocker has for years fought, captured, and slaughtered Native Americans of all tribes for the U.S. government. “Those were good days,” one of his soldiers says after remembering a story in which Blocker killed a “wretched savage” (“They were the best,” Blocker agrees), and Blocker won’t let anyone tell him different, sparring with a reporter who asks, “Is it true that you took more scalps than Sitting Bull himself?”
So it goes against practically everything in Blocker’s nature when his commanding officer, on orders from President Benjamin Harrison, instructs Blocker to transport the captive Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (the inimitable Wes Studi) and his family, who have been held at Fort Berrington for seven years, back to their ancestral lands at the Valley of the Bears in Montana. Yellow Hawk is dying of “the cancer,” and his request to return home to be buried has been approved—and Blocker, with his fluency in various Native American languages and his knowledge of the land, is the only person who can get him there. And saying no isn’t an option, not unless Blocker wants to lose his pension and his possibility of retirement.
“There ain’t enough punishment for his kind,” says Blocker of Yellow Hawk, who was responsible for the deaths of many of his friends, but he has to set off transporting “that cutthroat and his band of bastards and bitches” anyway, with a group of men that includes Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalamet, who are in every damn movie this year. And along the way, the group comes across a woman named Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a settler whose own experiences with the Comanche tribe ended in tragedy. With this group in tow, Blocker makes for Montana, where a direct order signed by President Harrison can be used to explain their presence and mission.
Do the close quarters between Yellow Hawk and his family and Blocker and his men cause discomfort, tension, and some self-reflection? Sure, but not because the Cheyenne have much to do. Instead, they’re presented as you would expect—respectable, willing to help, and brutally and efficiently violent when necessary, especially on horseback—but this movie (wrongly) doesn’t pay much attention to their struggles, their trauma, or their years in captivity. Nope, this movie is about Blocker, who nearly everyone praises for his history of violence. Only one character questions him for his actions and wonders why the U.S. government has changed their tactics toward the Native Americans, but that man’s points about Blocker—that the deaths on his hands were, in fact, still murder, even if he was just “doing his job”—aren’t given enough time to resonate within the narrative.
Is Blocker looking for redemption? Probably, but it’s hard to accept that when Hostiles spends so much time heaping praise upon the man. His friends thank him for being loyal. The black member of his unit thanks him for including him. Rosalie thanks him for saving her life. Yellow Hawk’s family is indebted to him for leading them back to their home. Bale attempts to project some inner conflict, but the film’s narrative undermines that effort by surrounding the character with people who fucking love the guy. Is something being said here about how “good soldiers” and “good men” are praised for actions that are objectively repellant? Possibly, but the film doesn’t pull off that nuance—not with an ending that leaves only certain characters alive and far others dead.
The cinematography is beautiful, with gorgeous shots of the big sky and the open country, but relies too much on brief scenes with Yellow Hawk and his family silently gazing plaintively into fires—maybe that portrays interiority, but it also romanticizes these characters instead of actualizing them. The supporting actors are all effective in limited screen time, especially Plemons and another (a surprise to me, and I won’t spoil it) who is as wonderfully deranged as he always is but isn’t around enough. And most egregious of all is [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT] the narrative development that brings the Army men and the Cheyenne men together, which is that all the female characters are kidnapped and raped. It is only then that the men unite to find their women and slaughter the fur traders who took them. In the next scene, the women are bruised and battered and silent, while Blocker has his first conversation with Yellow Hawk that isn’t combative or aggressive. I’m so pleased those female characters had to be brutalized so those dudes could talk it out!
Hostiles is a film that thinks it is portraying Native Americans in a sympathetic and favorable light, with honorable characters and depictions of their tribal land and a few customs, but the film’s attention to their story doesn’t even feel secondary—the order of attention is Blocker, then Rosalie, and finally Yellow Hawk and his family. Cooper’s primary concern is giving Blocker an opportunity for a new life, despite his decades of despicable behavior, and the film’s inability to see its own blind spots make it yet another well-intentioned but ultimately ho-hum movie about Good Men.