U.S. Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay wrote in his New York Times bestseller Redeployment that 50 percent of his time during war was spent in utter boredom. Another 49 percent elicited “normal terror” defined as a “general feeling that you might die any second and that everybody in this country wants to kill you.”
The final one percent entailed “pure terror,” which turned his hands white and sent his heart rate skyrocketing.That kind of life experience — applied to America, circa 1892 — is what actor Christian Bale brings to life in as Capt. Joseph J. Blocker in Hostiles, a western by director Scott Cooper. The film may seem like a 2 hour and 14 minute cinematic dirge to its harshest critics, but embedded within the death, depression and heartache are important lessons for our modern society.
Perhaps one of the most interesting tells about the quality of Hostiles’ script (written by Scott Cooper with a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart), is that it has taken ideological heat from conservatives and liberals. Critics viewing it through the former lens argue that it’s another in a long line of Hollywood films that flogs Americans for the sins (real and imagined) of our past. Liberals have lamented the screen time and focus on Bale as an affront to actor Wes Studi, who plays the cancer-stricken Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk.
Both views, in this instance, do the film’s creative team a disservice. It appears as though the writers aimed for the nuance of former war reporter Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, when he referenced anthropological studies on our ancestors — the “community of suffers” with their “brotherhood of pain” — as they transitioned from tribal societies to modern life. Everyone has blood on their hands; everyone is fallible; everyone has lived through unimaginable horrors, and if we could see that in our neighbor then the world might be a better place.
The plot to Hostiles in incredibly simple: Capt. Blocker, a warrior who has battled Native American tribes for decades, is tasked at the tail end of his career to transport Yellow Hawk to Montana to die. Orders have come down to his cavalry division directly from the president after the cause was taken up by activists.
The officer is threatened with a court-martial if he refuses the mission.
“Shut the hell up you f—ing pasty face,” Bale’s character says to a magazine editor in the room as the mission is handed down. “You have never seen the look of horror. You have no idea — no idea — what it does to a man. I’ve killed savages. I’ve killed plenty of them because that’s my f—ing job. I saw what happened to the 4th [Division] when Yellow Hawk and his dog soldiers got done with them. There wasn’t a — don’t you dare laugh. There wasn’t enough left of those poor men to fill a slop pail. Understand, when we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners. I hate them. I got a war bag of reason to hate them.”
One’s enjoyment of Hostiles from that point forward boils down to his or her opinion of the predictable transformation of Capt. Blocker after he decides to carry out the order. His team (with the help of Yellow Hawk and his family) battle enemies from without and within, and seconds before the end credits roll a movie mired in darkness ends with a ray of hope.
Overall, Hostiles is a quality product from start to finish. Bale convincingly delivers the gravitas of a life-long warrior, and peers like Rosamund Pike (she plays the lone survivor of a Comanche raid) give his star the opportunity to shine brighter. There are plenty of political and historical arguments to be had about the script, but cast and crew were undeniably firing on all cylinders.
Check out Hostiles in theaters for a cerebral western, but be prepared to experience two hours of dark subject matter as its characters slog their way to Big Sky Country.
Rating 4 out of 5 stars.