In its silent moments Hostiles achieves great beauty. In sequences where caravans traverse fresh, untainted frontier country with the sun glistening the terrain, where a man sits deep in thought in a small field and all that can be heard is the softly melancholic score, it is a marvel to witness.
Then a character opens his mouth, and Hostiles turns into an uninspired shuffle-drag of nihilism and juvenile moral relativism. Its pretentious genre flippancy isn’t even well executed. It doesn’t exalt character virtue like John Wayne’s films. It doesn’t affectionately evoke scope and mythology like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western films. It doesn’t commit to novel characterization or fret over genuine human limitation like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It doesn’t even match the thematic pacing of Unforgiven.
I harbor no delusions about the complex reality of the American west. But the western movie genre is something special. It is the essence of the American myth, with stories and characters made real to us by the power of cinema at its finest. It can instruct morality, explore human complexity, document violent history, observe the roots, pillars, and foundations of society, critique all of the above, and it can just make for a damn great time at the movies. In this wholesome respect, no film ever reached the heights of John Ford’s The Searchers. It is the most impressive accomplishment in the genre, and one of the all-time greatest staples of American cinema. I say all that because Hostiles has that film rather distinctively on its mind, but doesn’t understand the first thing about it.
For example, the final shot, after a long journey’s end where only three people – Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), and the grandson of the Cheyenne chief – remain alive, has Blocker deciding last second to join them as they depart east to Chicago on the train. It is intended as an opposite counterweight to the final shot of The Searchers, where Ethan Edwards cannot enter the home he’s reunited and the door is closed on him – forever removing and isolating him from the warmth of civilization, cursing him to wander the desert forever. Here, the intention is to convey that Blocker embraces civilization and chooses to begin anew with a family, himself closing the door on the west and the violent life he previously led.
If Hostiles was dramatically effective enough to earn even half of this, the ending might have saved it. Instead, it betrays Ford’s legacy.
The cold opening sequence shows the brutal Comanche massacre of a homestead family, including a moment where a baby is shot in the arms of his mother, followed immediately by a torture sequence where four white cavalrymen drag an Indian around and emphatically call him a redskin.
Then the next scene introduces Blocker and his old war buddy Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane) in a grim, depressed setting reminiscing on a horrific Civil War story and explicitly regretting that they’ve lived long enough to view that as “the good old days.”
We’re basically three scenes in, and already Hostiles is tone deaf, morally repugnant, and poorly made. It has already undermined the famous D.H. Lawrence quote at the start, even though the ending very much attempts to show the “melting” of the stoic, isolate killer American.
The basic story is that Captain Blocker is ordered to escort an old, sickly Cheyenne war chief named Yellow Hawk, with whom he has a bitter history, home to his home land that President Benjamin Harrison has given back to them. Along the way he meets a grief-stricken Mrs. Quaid, and the old enemies reconcile in their care for her.
As it gets going, Hostiles occasionally relaxes enough to be enjoyable, even riveting. But it can’t overcome its guilty white paralysis, with characters spitting out the film’s explicit themes and making themselves rain-soaked whipping boys for the American sin every time they talk about anything. It can’t loosen its grip on its own neck with its insufferable dialogue, but even worse – it’s inauthentic. There’s nothing in the adventure or the experience of navigating dangerous, open country that leads anyone to actually confront anything. They’re just talking.
For the most part, the exception is Mrs. Quaid. Pike plays her well as the only mildly tolerable character who actually seems to grow into her own, even if midway through the film she decides to leave the safe, comfortable town and continue with Blocker pretty much solely because the script wants to keep her in the movie. The outward “hostiles” they encounter throughout the film aren’t much better. They’re stocky manifestations of things that trigger the PC kids without context, dramatic purpose, or payoff. For a movie that can’t stop drooling platitudes, it can’t find the time to make sense of anyone outside of the central group.
Again, the basic western paradox at play in the film is a welcome one in concept. I’m not one of those people who hates Unforgiven for ostensibly destroying the myth of the west. But if you’re going to have your movie serve as an indictment of anti-civilized racial violence that innately poisons the beautiful setting around them, as well as its promise, you need a better dramatic vehicle than this, and a little more confidence in the power of subtlety. There’s another scene midway through where Blocker must say goodbye to one of his men who was injured in a fight just before they reached a town. In the story, it has all the significance of Sam saying bye to Bill the horse in The Fellowship of the Ring, but this movie wants it to be the “are you blind?” scene from Remember the Titans. It holds no apparent sense. There is simply no true feeling in this film beyond what Pike and Bale can occasionally conjure.
Hostiles has brief, scattered moments that are so good, they should by themselves make the movie a classic. Instead the movie is unearned grandeur – a pale imitation of epic westerns and a tone-deaf, relentlessly souring experience. Just watch The Searchers.