It wasn’t long ago that history and old movies would have us believe that the settlers of the West were righteous, God-fearing people surrounded by savage, rampaging Native Americans. In reality, the American dream is much darker, with bigotry, lying and killing stretching back to the founding of the country, and before.
Seen in that light, “Hostiles,” Scott Cooper’s mournful meditation on human nature, is more than a revisionist Western; it’s a film that explores the roots of racism and the cost of redemption.
Starting out in 1892 New Mexico, “Hostiles” sets up a stalemate between soldiers and Native Americans who instinctively despise and distrust each other with no hope in sight. Not accidentally, it’s a situation that echoes any number of current standoffs in this country that are locked in place by blind hatred.
The long march from New Mexico to Montana starts when career officer Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale), on the verge of retirement after serving his country for 20 years, is ordered to escort ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his ancestral Cheyenne burial grounds to die in peace. After a lifetime of battling Native Americans, and having many of his men slaughtered by them, it is not an assignment Blocker wants. But it is an order that comes from the top, the President of the United States himself. (Something that wouldn’t happen today.) So to preserve his honorable record and pension, Blocker grudgingly accepts the mission.
It is not long before the slow, sad line of men and indigenous persons on horseback encounters its first killings. A group of renegade Comanche has brutally slaughtered a farmer and his three young children, with only the farmer’s wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) making a narrow and suspenseful escape. The grief-stricken widow joins the company for her own safety, and the rest of the film is the story of the calamitous and bloody journey through the heartland of America.
Life in these parts is like moving through a lower rung of hell in that it continues to repeat itself, one death at a time. First the renegade Comanche must be hunted down and wiped out; then Rosalie and Yellow Hawk’s daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher, “The New World”) are abducted by fur trappers and must be rescued by Blocker and his men, precipitating more violence.
At an Army post pit-stop, the company takes on a prisoner (Ben Foster) to be delivered for court-martial for ax-murdering a family of Native Americans. He is unrepentant, and when he escapes, he proves it: His actions provide the first stirrings of awareness for Blocker. But the death that moves him to tears is that of his friend and longtime sidekick Metz (Rory Cochrane, “Argo”), who can’t take any more killing and goes off on a literal suicide mission.
Blocker is a simple man, on some level a stereotype, who has learned to take orders. It’s his job to kill, and all the killing has hardened him. But beneath the mustache that hides his mouth and feelings is a person of conscience. The beauty of “Hostiles” is that seemingly irredeemable people change, while others don’t.
With deliberate pacing, Cooper (“Black Mass,” “Out of the Furnace”) and editor Tom Cross (“La La Land”) creates the rhythms of broken lives. One isn’t so much swept up as lured in. The low-hanging clouds, rolling hills, sweeping plains, and endless horizon seem to go on forever, and in a sense they do. They give the film a timeless, almost biblical inevitability. And on this neutral canvas, man plays out the follies that all end in the same place, for some sooner than others.
Cooper effectively builds his tale layer upon layer, and cumulatively the chapters create a landscape of sorrow. Shots like the procession of soldiers on horseback are elegantly composed by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Spotlight”) without being self-consciously arty. The performances by Bales and Pike are restrained but convincing. And there are subtle changes along the way; as the party gets closer to Montana, the look becomes greener and brighter with more breathing room. The overall effect is powerful: an immersion and, finally, a release from this world. Until some “real” Americans show up, claiming this is their property and that no Indians are going to take it away from them. That this story ends in violence is not surprising.
But under all this darkness there are sparks of human decency and kindness. A bond of grief develops between Blocker and Rosalie that could mean something. And somehow, Rosalie is still a believer. “If I did not have faith,” she says, “what would I have?” It’s a good question.