Movie review: Hostiles walks a new path in the Western genre

Christian Bale stars in Hostiles, a stark rendering of brutalities incurred during expansion into the American West. Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures Christian Bale stars in Hostiles, a stark rendering of brutalities incurred during expansion into the American West. Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

War has been a part of the human experience for all of recorded history. But what happens when the things that drive us to it are no longer a factor? Resources, borders, languages, religions; if we found ourselves in a situation where none of those things truly mattered, would we still find reasons to fight, or would we stop? Taken one step further, imagine you are in the middle of a bitter, bloody fight, heavy losses on both sides, when the stated purpose of it all suddenly ceases to be, though no formal truce or ceasefire has been announced. Would you keep up the fight simply out of spite and habit, even though the other side is no longer your enemy?

That is the question asked by Hostiles, a revisionist Western by writer-director Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart) that takes a different view of the classic—and one-sided—cowboys and Indians story. Set in 1892, a time when the United States’ westward expansion has resulted in the extermination or displacement of most of the Native American population, though pockets of violent resistance remain. We follow Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a decorated and brutal officer responsible for imprisoning or executing those who fight back. He is a disciplined military man who alleges to take no specific pleasure in his work, yet his desire to exact revenge against those who have killed his comrades is palpable.

R, 133 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Violet Crown Cinemas

Just before retirement, he is charged by President Benjamin Harrison with escorting Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), who is dying of cancer, from his jail cell in New Mexico to the Cheyenne ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker vehemently resists this mission, recalling battles with Yellow Hawk and those who died at the chief’s hands, though he begrudgingly accepts.

Along the way, they encounter a rogue band of Comanche, a woman (Rosamund Pike) who lost her family and home in a raid, greedy fur traders, and a condemned criminal (Ben Foster) who once fought alongside Blocker. All of these interactions contribute to an evolution in Blocker’s mentality, particularly the honor and dignity with which Yellow Hawk and his family conduct themselves.

It would have been easy for Cooper to turn this into a plague-on-both-your-houses morality play, but his understanding of the Old West is much more sophisticated than that. The realization that there is nothing driving Blocker and Yellow Hawk against one another gradually sets in, as does the reflection on their shared history.

Blocker is not wrong to recognize the fearsome power of Yellow Hawk, but he has always viewed his past actions through the lens of duty and retaliation. Once his mission is no longer to clear territory or prosecute criminals (whose actual guilt varies), that lens becomes thinner and thinner. This progression is assisted by Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), who once fought for the Confederacy and has known nothing except war ever since and wants it all to end, with his honor intact if possible.

No one is ever fully absolved of his sins in Hostiles, but every lead character is offered an opportunity to rise above the worst of his deeds; how they act on this opportunity depends on the individual. It is politically sharp without ever being didactic, philosophical without forgetting the purpose of its narrative. The film is certainly too long and the script would benefit from some dialogue rewrites, but Hostiles may be the most intelligent Western in recent memory.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

12 Strong, The Greatest Showman, I, Tonya, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Paddington 2, Phantom Thread, The Post, Spice World, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

12 Strong, Den of Thieves, Darkest Hour, Forever My Girl, The Greatest Showman, Insidious: The Last Key, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Lady Bird, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Paddington 2, The Post, Proud Mary, The Shape of Water, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

12 Strong, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, The Final Year, I, Tonya, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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