Hostiles aims to be an unflinching study of violence and its role in American history, to join the ranks of the most revered revisionist Westerns. Viewers know this because the incidences of violence combine ugly gore effects with matter-of-fact acting. Men, women, and children alike are murdered without blinking, and the slaughter erupts briefly between long stretches that are nothing but quiet character interactions. Yet, it is the violence that bores and the talky bits that make the film difficult to watch. Writer/director Scott Cooper plays the film on a single dirge note — whether he’s repeating it or just continually wailing is tough to tell, since it all blurs together.
In 1892, America has achieved its Manifest Destiny and its wars with the land’s native peoples are all but finished. Army Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), veteran of untold campaigns against the Indians, is severely displeased to find that his final assignment before retirement entails escorting captive Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribe’s reservation in Montana. Along the way, the party comes across a homestead burned by a Comanche raid, with sole survivor Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) still cradling her dead baby. Soon forced to cooperate with their prisoners to survive the perils of the journey, Blocker and his soldiers sure enough find themselves considering whether the Natives… might be not so bad… after all?
For all its attempts at dissecting human cruelty, there’s no human core to this story, which makes its 135-minute runtime feel twice as long. Cooper is deeply in love with lengthy monologues and conversations, each of which make their particular theme (“War is hell,” “I’m very sad about my dead family,” “I hate this race,” etc.) apparent early on, thereafter becoming extended exercises in drumming the earth well after a stake has been hammered all the way in. That these characters can talk for so long without doing anything to change one’s initial understanding of them is both aggravating and morbidly impressive. If they do change (and viewers earn no points for guessing who experiences a real evolution of wokeness), then it’s in a wholly unconvincing manner.
Hollywood has floundered in grappling with Native Americans since it allegedly evolved out of depicting them as savages, and Hostiles, despite its progressive pretensions, demonstrates how badly the industry continues to fumble the subject. To be fair (sort of), there’s an intractable quandary here: once you have acknowledged the monstrosity of what the United States did to indigenous people, any gesture of nuance or sympathetic portrayal of white people is going to look paltry, if not ridiculous. (And, of course, almost no one acknowledges the monstrosities the country continues to inflict on Native Americans today.)
Cooper tries to maneuver around this by leaning into the unsympathetic aspects of the history. Both the U.S. and the Indians were violent, you see. It’s an eye-rolling both-sides-ism that dissolves any sense of specificity, obscures the obvious power imbalance and bare facts of the conflicts and ultimately means the film does little more than make an “Isn’t this all such a shame?” statement. That Hostiles uses this as a vehicle to suggest an eventual peaceful and understanding redemption for its main character (and by extension America, I suppose) is both lazy and at least mildly repugnant.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.