The Western keeps reinventing itself. Each generation finds its own way of adapting the genre to reflect our country’s social evolution and gradual enlightenment through a mechanism that is uniquely and wholly American. From John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman to Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner to Quentin Tarantino. From the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” to Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” the genre lends itself to and bends itself into a continual rumination on redefining the Great American Hero.
Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” might well become this generation’s definitive Western for the way it embraces the genre’s traditions while coming to grips with the inescapable admission of our own war crimes.
With “Hostiles,” which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Cooper finally brings to full fruition the excellence he has come close to achieving in the fine films he’s already made: “Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Black Mass.” A director prone to the slow burn who is none too keen on sentimentality, Cooper thaws some of that reluctance with “Hostiles” to offer what so many of us crave, especially now in Trump’s America.
No, it isn’t an ode to patriotism. Quite the opposite, actually. It’s a film that is not afraid to soothe the aching heart that longs for some echo of hope amid the darkness.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a late-19th-century soldier tasked with slaughtering Native Americans. Blocker believes himself to be on the right side — God’s side, the side that told us we somehow had the right to seize land that wasn’t ours and annihilate anyone who wasn’t us. So disgusted with Native Americans is Captain Blocker that he refuses a direct order to take an Indian family to a reservation and doesn’t comply until threatened with a court-martial.
Rosamund Pike plays the sole survivor of an attack by a particularly ruthless tribe that came for their horses, killed her whole family and burned down their homestead. Pike’s character survives, cradling her dead baby in her arms until Blocker’s entourage stumbles upon her. For no reason except that it’s the right thing to do, Blocker gives her a warm blanket, helps her bury her children and before long she’s riding along on the mission with them.
She and Blocker and the Indian family are stuck together, enemies, but as they face common adversities they somehow must learn how to fight as one to survive. They’re a collection of broken individuals thrown together by circumstance. As their troubles mount they don’t have time to adhere to their preconceived hatred of one another. They must learn to trust each other. They have no other choice.
Some of this may sound like a cliché, but Cooper avoids facile assumptions by making things exponentially harder on his protagonist and fellow travelers. There isn’t going to be any easy way out of their plight. Despite the violence, moral ambiguity and growing body count, this is not a Western noir, because it’s ultimately not a film about hopelessness or despair, which it very well could have been.
Instead, Cooper offers up another way forward, another way to escape the guilty disenchantment of the merciless frontier. For an interminably bleak stretch, the movie seems seems to offer no way out — no way out of our dark and unforgivable American past, no way to break free from the unending grief of having your homeland taken from you by men on horseback with an endless supply of weapons, no way out of the unimaginable sorrow of losing all of your children in an instant.
No way out, until the doomed adversaries are swept up in shared realization — that the only way to make it out alive will be to stitch together what’s left of their shattered existence and discover a new and better definition of the right way to live.
“Hostiles” is beautifully filmed amid endless horizons by Masanobu Takayanagi, the cinematographer who shot both “Out of the Furnace” and “Black Mass.” It features another standout performance by Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk. Pike is marvelous in her pivotal supporting turn. Ultimately, though, the film’s main artery is Bale, whose character undergoes an impossibly wide range of changes.
There aren’t many films that can illuminate important ideals, the things that really matter when the lights go out, when life comes to an end. Sometimes those ideals matter enough to die for them. Sometimes they matter enough to kill for them. And some of us are lucky enough that we can turn to art to remind us. Riveted by the glorious storytelling of “Hostiles,” a few Telluride audience members burst into spontaneous applause as it built to its conclusion.
Each of us packs whatever fragments we can salvage of ourselves after tragedies, and each of us struggles to piece together all that remains as we stumble through life. We can never erase who we are. We can’t ever atone for what we’ve done. We must, all of us, carry our history with us every day we live, in a land that was never ours.
Cooper has, with his splendid new film, given us yet another opportunity to help restore some of what we’ve taken. This latest incarnation of the great American Western finds its truth in the tangled roots of our own mythmaking.