Bloody, Pensive 'Hostiles' Strays From Path to Significance

Directed by: Scott Cooper; Runtime: 134 minutes
Grade: C

The pushback against the history books regarding the treatment and colonialization of Native Americans has strengthened over the past half-century, but the yearly calls to abandon Columbus Day and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have kept the issues prominent in current discussions. The urge to work these contemporary perspectives and messages into live-action historical fiction may be noble, but they run the risk of going against the grain of how attitudes likely were during earlier eras, especially in terms of the Americans' treatment of their indigenous people during the transformative late-1800s. Among other modern enlightened ideals, Scott Cooper's Hostiles attempts to work these considerations and concerns built on hindsight into his elongated adventure from New Mexico to Montana, and the awakened changes that characters undergo become questionable in response. Strong performance value, gritty frontier survival, and a tasteful representation of Native American heritage fail to thrive under the weight of doubtful logistics and impractical personality transformations ... and pacing that drags the trek out longer than it should.

After rounding up yet another Native American family and bringing them to be imprisoned at his military fort, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) nears the end of his demanding, bloody military career, one largely dominated by pursuing and warring with the country's indigenous peoples. In his final orders before retirement, Blocker has been given a particularly contentious assignment: to escort an imprisoned Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his entire family to their valley homeland in Montana, before he succumbs to "the cancer". This isn't just some Indian, though, as he's been responsible for the deaths of many of Blocker's fellow soldiers, putting him in a very complicated position. Armed with a mixture of troops of his choosing and those appointed by his superior, Blocker and his crew begin the long, arduous escort mission, one that's going to take them through the wild and lawless frontier. Unsurprisingly, they encounter others along the way, from violent native tribespeople to a widow, Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), whose entire family was murdered by them.

The very last scene of Hostiles centers on a train leaving its station, and it's a bothersome final image to send it off on because it makes one think about the arduous journey of Blocker's party … and how it could've been far less bloody and demanding had they all just taken a train. There may be reasonable explanations to why they didn't, rooted in the covert nature of safely transporting a Native American between locations, factoring in the complex historical turning point regarding their integration into the society of frontier-era United States. None of this gets addressed, though, leaving the audience to assume that this horse-led journey -- through wide expanses of volatile wilderness -- must be the only way possible, and that the resistant Captain Blocker is the only guide who can shoulder the responsibility due to his grasp of the land and of the native's language. Working from a manuscript by Oscar-winner Donald E. Stewart, Cooper attempts to make the most of it by putting Blocker's embittered traits under a magnifying glass, but these circumstances seem manufactured so that the greatest amount of time and conflict are forced upon him, all so his perception of who he's escorting will change.

Hostiles doesn't ease those watching into accepting what change might come to Blocker's perspective, either, beginning with a depiction of the brutal -- and sporadically absurd -- murder of Rosalie's family at the hands of the more violent type of Native Americans roaming the lands; she really shouldn't have made it out alive. With scalping and indiscriminate gunfire upon women and children, the point gets made that certain stories told about their vicious nature aren't exaggerations, which explains Blocker's intolerant position against them. Christian Bale telegraphs a sturdy portrayal of a weatherworn captain with blood on his hands, and it's tough not to sympathize with his hardened viewpoint after seeing the brutality at the start. Nor does the authenticity of Rosamund Pike's shell-shocked demeanor come into question, in which she produces a genuinely distinctive performance as the grief-stricken widow, teetering on the line between anguish and delusion in her grasp on what's happened to her.

Once they're on the journey from New Mexico to Montana, Hostiles adopts the kind of drawn-out, sparse pacing that steers it away from being a western and closer to a tense period drama, centered around prolonged close-ups that reveal what's going on in the minds of soldiers, widows, and natives alike. The focus on these characters may be potent, but it can also feel time-displaced in how it approaches grief, murder, and forgiveness. Scott Cooper devotes less time to the gravitas of physical conflicts, sporting only a handful of gritty scenes of exchanged gunfire and resorting to random encounters to create suspense and conceptual parallels involving the many kinds of "hostiles" scattered across the country. Those on the hunt for the next Proposition or 3:10 to Yuma won't find that here, discovering instead a deliberate character examination populated with severe, awkwardly philosophical conversations and overstated drama involving the cavalrymen -- especially from Rory Cochrane's haunted, bearded Sergeant Metz -- which come across as out-of-place and filtered through modern thinking.

With beautiful craftsmanship involving the picturesque landscape and the restrained, properly spare aesthetics, Hostiles doesn't lack for legitimacy in its setting, nor in its evenhanded and non-stereotypical depiction of the era's Native Americans, mixing soulfulness with intimidation; The Last of the Mohicans' Wes Studi absorbingly plays the sagely elder, passing the torch to another actor now embodying a face-painted bad guy. What it does lack is credible evolutions of its harrowed primary characters, especially Blocker, which occur at accelerated and unconvincing rates in the context of the experiences they've endured, opting for the overpowering potency of absolute understanding instead of nuanced, measured progress through experiences. Blocker has many years of antagonism toward what Native Americans have done to him and his fellow soldiers, and his headspace -- and general circumstances -- once Hostiles reaches its bloodstained destination misses the mark with the premise's expressive potential, traveling between stark idealistic peaks and valleys in how it portrays one white man's converted awareness to where the hostility really comes from.

Film review also appeared over at [Click Here]


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