Hostiles; 135 min; Rated R
“Hostiles” opens with a quotation by D.H. Lawrence that captures the essence of what is not a typical western but rather a complex narrative — a grim yet hopeful character study — that from the first scene to the last is captivating.
Lawrence wrote: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”
And “Hostiles” does open with a scene that at first appears bucolic and appealing. A frontier farmhouse, constructed of hand-hewn logs and inhabited by a small family (the mother is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), sitting with her two young girls, homeschooling them while a babe in arms sleeps quietly in its crib. The year is 1882. The place, at least initially, is New Mexico.
But then the scene pans back to include six men on horseback, their faces covered in war paint, all armed. Suddenly, they charge forward toward the farm. The only survivor is Rosalie, her baby held tightly in her arms, its blanket bloodied.
Cut to a small cavalry fort, one side a series of jail cells filled with captured Northern Cheyenne. A cavalry officer, Capt. Joe Blocker (Christian Bale), is being informed that before he is allowed to retire, on the orders of not only his commanding officer but the president of the U.S., Benjamin Harrison, he is to accompany a terminally ill Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family back to Montana where the chief wishes to spend his final days.
Blocker, who has waged years of war against Yellow Hawk, at first refuses, vehemently. Clearly Blocker is a man who has witnessed acts of brutality, committed by him as well those committed by the Cheyenne who have resisted the overpowering attempts of the government to take their land.
Using the words of Lawrence, Blocker is stoic, hard, and indeed a killer. But then most Americans viewed their possession of the West as ordained, referred to and rationalized by Washington, D.C., as Manifest Destiny. Like most, Blocker is blind to the vicious cycle in which he is trapped. He knows only that he possesses a deep and abiding hatred of the Cheyenne, specifically Yellow Hawk.
Blocker does agree to lead a party, including the chief and his family, from New Mexico to Montana. It will be a long and harrowing journey through country still inhabited by renegade raiding parties of Comanches and Apaches.
As they proceed north, they come across a burned-out farmhouse, a dead man near the entry, and two dead children in back. Inside sits Rosalie, her baby still in her arms, deeply damage from the trauma she has endured.
Blocker has no choice but to gently convince her to come with them, though when she sees Yellow Hawk and his family, she is repelled and terrified.
It is only Blocker’s unexpected kindness that calms her and allows her to gradually begin to emerge from the grief and shock that caused her initially to retreat into herself.
Blocker also comes to understand that the rogue Comanches will be back and that Yellow Hawk and his son can help in their defense.
And so they journey farther north. And it is in act two and three where Blocker begins to view the chief and his family as people and is forced to abandon his years of objectification. It is a revealing and unexpected transformation, not just for Blocker but for Rosalie as well. Both are haunted by their experiences, and both are able to transcend the residual rage that haunts each of them for different reasons.
While there are moments of violence in “Hostiles,” to be sure, these scenes are never gratuitous. Rather, this is a story about a man and a woman who are all but forced to overcome their misconceptions and long-held assumptions about a people.
Blocker senses his war and his passionate hatreds are slipping away, morphing into a growing remorse, all the while he is observing Rosalie’s quiet compassion toward Yellow Hawk’s family and to the suffering chief. He realizes that he has brutalized a people he never understood.
From the first frame until the last, “Hostiles” is as fine a western as has been released since, well, “Open Range.” To find a similar story, it would be necessary to reach back to John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956), a western that was equally similar in stunning scenery and characters, led by John Wayne portraying a man, like Blocker, deeply damaged by racism and his capacity for violence.
Know that “Hostiles” reaches for far more than a gunfight near a corral or a confrontation in a saloon over a deck of cards. It’s worth screening.