The Western keeps reinventing itself. Each generation finds its own way of adapting the genre to reflect our country’s social evolution and gradual enlightenment through a mechanism that is uniquely and wholly American. From John Ford to Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman to Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner to Quentin Tarantino. From the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men to Iñárritu’s The Revenant, the genre lends itself and bends itself to a continual rumination on redefining the Great American hero. Scott Cooper’s Hostiles might well become this generation’s definitive Western for the way it embraces the genre’s traditions while coming to grips with the inescapable admission of our own war crimes.
With Hostiles, director Scott Cooper finally brings to full fruition the excellence he has come close to perfecting in the fine films he’s already made: Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, and Black Mass. A director prone to the slow burn who is none too keen on sentimentality, Cooper thaws some of that reluctance with Hostiles to offer what so many of us crave, especially now in Trump’s America. No, it isn’t an ode to patriotism. Quite the opposite actually – it’s a film that is not afraid to soothe the aching heart that longs for some echo of hope amid the darkness.
Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a soldier tasked with slaughtering Native Americans. Blocker believes himself to be on the right side, God’s side, the side that told us we somehow had the right to seize land that wasn’t ours and annihilate anyone who wasn’t us. So disgusted with Native Americans is Captain Blocker that he refuses a direct order to take an Indian family to a reservation and doesn’t comply until threatened with a court-martial.
Rosamund Pike plays the sole survivor of an attack by a particularly ruthless tribe that came for their horses, killed her whole family and burned down their homestead. Pike lives, cradling her dead baby in her arms until Bale’s entourage stumbles upon her. For no reason except that it’s the right thing to do, Bale gives her a warm blanket, helps her bury her children, and before long she’s riding along on the mission with them.
They are stuck together, enemies, but as they face adversities they somehow must learn how to fight together as one if they’re to survive. They’re a collection of broken individuals thrown together by circumstance. As their troubles mount they don’t have time to adhere to their preconceived hatred of one another. They must learn to trust each other. They have no other choice,
Some of this may sound like a familiar cliché, but Cooper avoids such facile assumptions by making things exponentially harder on his protagonist and other travelers. There isn’t going to be any easy way out of this. Despite the violence, moral ambiguity, and growing body count, this is not a Western noir, because it’s ultimately not a film about hopelessness and despair, which it very well could have been.
Instead, Cooper offers up another way forward, another way to escape the guilty disenchantment of the merciless frontier. After an interminably bleak passage when there seems to be no way out – no way out of our dark and unforgivable American past, no way to break free from the unending grief of having your homeland taken from you by men on horseback with an endless supply of weapons, no way out of unimaginable sorrow of losing all of your children that you saw shot in the back – in an instant, the doomed adversaries are swept up in shared realization: the acceptance that the only way to make it out alive will be to stitch together what’s left of their shattered existence and discover a new and better definition of the right way to live.
Hostiles, filmed amid endless horizons in the glory of the natural world, is beautifully lensed by Masanobu Takayanagi, the cinematographer who shot both Out of the Furnace and Black Mass. It features another standout performance by Wes Studi as Chief Yellow Hawk. Pike is marvelous in her pivotal supporting turn. Ultimately, though, the film’s main artery is Bale, whose character undergoes an impossibly wide range of changes throughout the course of the film.
There aren’t many films that can illuminate the ideals that matter, the things that really matter when the lights go out, when life comes to an end. Sometimes those ideals matter enough to die for them. Sometimes they matter enough to kill for them. Some of us are lucky enough that we can turn to art to remind us. Riveted by the glorious slow burn that Hostiles builds to a conclusion, a few audience members burst into spontaneous applause.
Each of us packs whatever fragments we can salvage of ourselves after tragedies, and each of us struggles to piece together all that remains as we stumble through life. We can never erase who we are. We can’t ever atone for what we’ve done. We must, all of us, carry our history with us every day we live, in a land that was never ours. Cooper has, with his splendid new film, given us yet another opportunity to help restore some of what we’ve taken. This latest incarnation of the great American Western finds its truth in the tangled roots of our own mythmaking.