Hostiles is a Hard Look At the Very Soul of America
Hostiles is a perfect metaphor for life in the “old west.” It’s a hard movie to watch, but then again life wasn’t exactly a picnic in those ways. It’s a stone-faced and stoic film to the point of nearly embracing toxic masculinity, but that just means that the emotional beats in it have a knock out punch. Hostiles might not be fun, but it is worthwhile in so many ways.
Christian Bale leads an exemplary cast in Hostiles as Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier that has made a career of being one of the best when it comes to killing Native Americans. It’s clear from the get-go that he is not a man looking for redemption. In fact, he’s a man that doesn’t believe in showing any traditional signs of “weakness.” This makes it all the more poignant during the scenes that he’s struggling to choke back tears in front of his fellow soldiers. Opposite him is Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk, a prisoner who just wants to see his homeland one more time before he dies. What makes Hostiles so intriguing is it starts as a movie without heroes. Both of these men and those with them on their journey have done their share of terrible things as they embraced “an eye for an eye” mentality.
In fact, Hostiles is a movie filled with men doing horrible things. Native Americans butcher people, white men slaughter Native Americans, white men attack white men. There are threats around every corner, and I can’t say that it ever lets you truly get comfortable because very few of the characters are ever truly safe. As despicable as that sounds, there is a turning point in the film where white men protect Native Americans. Like I said before, Bale’s character is not looking for redemption, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come looking for him. Honestly, it’s one of the most impressively crafted character arcs I’ve seen in recent memory. Of course, it would not be possible without the chemistry he shares with Wes Studi. The look in that man’s eye and his stunning profile, well, you can’t fake that. He’s so good in his role, that it’s hard to even tell if he’s acting at all.
As outstanding as the performances are in Hostiles, they pale in comparison to the scenery. Director Scott Cooper manages to find the most scenic route for the characters to take on their journey and every shot is simply beautiful. The film embraces the open sky, endless fields, canyons and even forests across the journey, turning the landscape into the best supporting actor in the film. It’s a sharp contrast to the brutality occurring between characters, but they don’t call it America the beautiful for nothing. This beauty though is only skin deep it turns out.
Hostiles is a film that’s the strong and silent type. At least it certainly tries to be. There are key moments where emotion slips to, or rather it tries to and the characters struggle to keep it at bay. This struggle though is what humanizes them. As terrible as some of the things are that they’ve supposedly done over the years, deep down they’re all trying to deal with the consequences of their actions. For them, the best way to do so is to double down on their devotion to their cause. After all, real men don’t admit when they’re wrong, right?
There’s certainly a twinge of white guilt to go along with Hostiles, but the film never seems like it’s fishing for it. In a lot of ways, it feels very much like a movie that is telling it how it is. It’s a bleak time in American history (then again, there aren’t a lot of high points when it comes to our treatment of those who aren’t white and male), but Hostiles doesn’t feel like it’s taking a side in the issue. Instead, it’s there to show that the whole situation was out of control and really messed up. It’s a movie that is about soldiers on both sides who followed orders and had to do what they needed to cope with it. When it’s armies facing each other, killing is an easy call. When it’s just men, things are a lot more complicated than that. It’s this aspect of the film that I respect the most.
If you’re not interested in seeing Hostiles because of its brutal portrayal of life in the late 1800’s of for the fact that it makes you think hard about the terrible things men are capable of. At least consider seeing it for Bale’s epic mustache, it’s a thing of beauty. In all seriousness though, Hostiles is one of the best-crafted stories I’ve seen on the big screen since Wind River and it’s got the perfect cast to bring it to life. It’s a haunting movie that shines a light on the very soul of America.