I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about the new Scott Cooper western drama Hostiles; I worried it might just be another film that paints a pretty picture about Native Americans and whites learning to appreciate one another as human beings, while really still just grooming the fraying threads that uphold America’s foundation of white supremacy. Okay, that might be a bit dramatic but… ehh. Hostiles is based on the journey of Joseph J. Blocker, a legendary US Army Captain, who, in 1892, “agreed” to lead a notorious, long-imprisoned, and now dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk and his family safely back to his home land. It’s a journey that begins with reluctance, distrust, and lot of misplaced hate, but one that ends with an unspoken reversal of those feelings.
The cinematography was gorgeous, thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi. It was artsy and guided the story along in the most tactfully subliminal way. I was so wrapped up in what I was feeling at the content of the film that the score (by Max Ricther), much like the camera work, only guided me and intensified my emotions, never making me pay more attention to it than anything else going on.
Most of the set was, well, desert, and yet somehow they made it look beautiful. The costumes and props looked real to my untrained eye, and the way they incorporated the characters with the set and the filming of it all was real nice. The overall production quality was top notch. Brava to the production designer Donald Graham Burt, art director Elliott Glick, set decorator Edward McLoughlin, and costume designer Jenny Eagen.
Hostiles is a very character focused film, and the performances didn’t disappoint. Each character was developed strategically over the course of the film, giving away just what you needed to learn about them to understand their motives and actions, and more importantly, care. You have Christian Bale in the lead role as Captain Joseph Blocker, Wes Studi as the slow-burning fire that is Chief Yellow Hawk, and Rosamond Pike absolutely destroying her role as Rosalie Quaid, the sole survivor of a brutal attack on her families farm, and a surprise addition to the Chief’s escort party. There were also some great performances from Ben Foster, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, and [semi] newbies Jonathan Majors and Xavier Horsechief.
Despite love-hating every second of this film, you still need to handle it with caution for both the disturbing violence portrayed, and how the story could be perceived, hence my earlier noted skepticism. Hostiles is based on a historical event that was documented from the perspective of Captain Blocker, so it only makes sense that the film is told from his perspective. It’s about the tensions between Native Americans and European Americans, how the Captain and Rosalie were able to overcome some of their biases against the Natives (cough cough nudge nudge white people get ur shit together), and also how the violence, hostility, judgments, and biases go both ways. And despite the fact that we have wayyyy too many films about the struggles of minority cultures with white actors in lead roles already (maybe let’s see something from a Native American’s perspective next time?), I will commend this film for how hard it worked to acknowledge that both groups were horribly violent during this period, but also capable of working together and valuing one another’s lives. HOWEVER. It really had me invested in the overall message up until the very end of the film, where the Captain and Rosalie and the little Native American boy were the lone survivors, and the Captain hands the a book he was reading as a gift… and a sign of his inevitable cultural assimilation. It’s just a white guy feeling guilty about the destruction he’s caused to an entire population but trying to make up for it by saying, “sorry about that, and also you might as well learn English now and get used to our shit because all of your shit’s gone.” Call me a hyper-critical overly sensitive liberal if you want, but I think it’s important not to take anything for face value and really think about the implications it can have.
However, I genuinely don’t have any criticism about the portrayal of Rosalie Quaid, one of the only females in the film (and certainly the only one with more than a few lines). Rosamond Pike’s grieving – YES WE’RE BACK TO HER DEAL WITH IT – was so real I would believe her entire family had just been murdered by a ruthless tribe of Native Americans and this was actually a documentary. But probably not. The way this character was written, and Pike’s heart-wrenching performance made for an amazing portrayal of what a dynamic woman really looks like. She exhibited traits typically associated with both women and men, and simply made her character human. So for this, hats off to our white male writer/director Scott Cooper.