by Philip Price
There are opening scenes and then there is the opening scene to “Hostiles.” Why do people treat one another the way we have for all of history? This is the question the opening sequence within director Scott Cooper's (“Crazy Heart”) latest brutally forces us to ponder. The United States, since its inception in 1776, has only not been in conflict with itself or another country for a total of 18 years. Why are we like this? What is it in our human nature that allows us to always be at odds with others and their inclinations? It's a fascinating and broad mentality to deconstruct, but dammit if Cooper doesn't try his darndest in what is itself a seeming deconstruction of the classic American Western. Maybe it's the fact I haven't seen as many classic Westerns as I should to be able to understand where “Hostiles” goes wrong in its breaking down of the mythos of the old west, but for what it's worth, Cooper's film feels pure in its intent to accurately portray this time and the dynamics that existed in as honest a fashion as possible-no matter how gruesome and no matter who comes out looking worse. This opening sequence then, which I won't go into detail about here, is an immediate and gut-wrenching reminder of the fact hate is often one in the same no matter where it comes from, but is often not seen as hate from the perspective from which it comes. In “Hostiles,” Cooper examines all the complexities of war and the purpose of the meanings behind words like honor and courage while stripping them down to not so much the definitions we've come to immediately relate to such words, but more the intent behind them. It's a rather simple suggestion, a simple consensus to come to even, but as history has shown us there is typically a lot of bloodshed and a lot of lives lost in the process of trying to come to such a consensus. And so, Cooper communicates these simple, but resounding themes through a straightforward story that is executed with the scope of that grand American Western. Channeling this idea that somewhere along the lines of history we found war to be the most effective tool of persuasion into a narrative that is able to say much more with the implications of the events it documents rather than serving as an excuse for an adrenaline rush via the shootouts or misplaced pride in whatever side you might genetically fall, but more in being an understanding of the value of life and how much of it has been lost over what comes down to little more than inconsequential details.
Beginning with a D.H. Lawrence quote that states, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." One might guess what direction this is heading, but one also must wonder with what perspective this statement is coming from as well as Lawrence only lived in the United States from 1922 to 1925 or so and went on many extended vacations during that time. Lawrence was in fact only a young boy, seven-years old to be exact, when the events in “Hostiles” are said to be taking place and so, while Lawrence wasn't specifically talking about the men that we see in this film it is evident he saw something in the nature and in the spirit of those he came in contact with during his time establishing the Kiowa Ranch in Taos, N.M. that inspired him to write such words about the nation. That said, Lawrence also seemed to despise the lower classes and felt the need to rid society of them, so take all of this with a grain of salt if you'd like. The point being, Lawrence's quote is meant to enlist a state of mind about the embodiment of these characters we're about to go on a journey with. It is meant to create an aura around other characters so that, upon being introduced to them, we already have a good sense of what occupies their head space. Set in New Mexico in 1892, thirty years post-Civil War, Cooper picks up with Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), regarded for "taking more scalps than Sitting Bull himself," who is enlisted as a kind of "last act to ensure retirement" to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family who have been prisoners of the U.S. for over seven years back to their tribal lands. Telling is the fact that immediately following the opening sequence Cooper cuts to Blocker and his men torturing an Apache as his wife and young child stand idle by, unable to do anything but scream in terror. It's not nearly as devastating as what unfolds in the first five minutes of the film, but as this Native American is pulled along the ground by a horse over rough terrain for no reason other than to treat this fellow man with disregard, it is clear the position the film is taking and the lack of juxtaposition between what are meant to be soldiers who uphold the law and basic civility and that of Comanche renegades is intentionally striking. The fact Bale's Blocker is at the head of this wrangling also tells us the initial disposition of his character which, when paired with the image conjured by the Lawrence quote, doesn't exactly paint a picture of an individual who would find no qualms in protecting what he has clearly come to despise. Of course, if Blocker wasn't initially prejudice against the Native Americans there would be no arc for his character and no satisfaction in the narrative and thus we are on this journey not only to ensure that Blocker completes his task successfully, but that he naturally learns something in the process as well.
Blocker puts together his detail in Rory Cochrane's Master Sgt. Thomas Metz, a soldier who is at the end of his line; exhausted and conflicted. Having seen so much and no doubt done much worse, the violence has taken an untold toll on the Master Sgt. as he can't help but to be unable to reconcile all he's been commanded to do in his life. Jonathan Majors is Corp. Henry Woodsen, the only African-American in Blocker's detail though this fact isn't highlighted or exploited for any cheap shots. Rather, Woodsen maintains the respect he deserves by exemplifying his skill throughout. It is one of the best scenes in the film when Bale and Woodsen, in a moment of vulnerability, allow each of their facades to fall and their sincere gratitude to come through. Jesse Plemons is West Point graduate Lt. Rudy Kidder who oversees provisions and, given they don't get too many "West Point types" out this far, is also out to prove his worth. Finally, there is Timothée Chalamet's Pvt. Philippe DeJardin who is a new arrival with less than ideal experience that wasn't chosen by Blocker specifically, but rather Stephen Lang's Col. Abraham Biggs who has tasked Blocked with this undesirable duty. This was obviously shot during Chalamet working on his two other breakout films this year as “Hostiles” takes very little advantage of the young actor's charisma, though the remainder of the supporting cast being so steeped in talent lend this dark yet sturdy picture a resonance it can't help but to generate. Bale is particularly affecting despite it being made clear early that his character is something of an asshole. Shortly after leaving the site in New Mexico to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk's wife Elk Woman (Q'orianka Kilcher), and their son Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), as well as the Chief's daughter, Moon Deer (Tanaya Beatty), to sacred Cheyenne territory in Montana known as "The Valley of the Bears" the company comes across a residence that has been burned to the ground with only Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) remaining. It is in the moments shortly after the first encounter between Blocker and Quaid that Bale demonstrates his character's unexpected sympathy and ability to deftly handle the delicate situation in which he has encountered. Bale conveying much of what was on the page in mannerisms and glances that speak volumes to this hardened Captain's softer interiors. Pike is equal in her performance throughout as she commands we stay with her in every moment no matter how hard we might want to look away. No matter the context or surrounding circumstances, what we witness Pike's character and no doubt countless Native American wives and mothers, who had to deal with the same type of heartbreak, go through is unacceptable only reinforcing the larger theme imbued by Cooper and purposefully begging the question, over and over, of why must we treat others the way we do and have for so long?
In framing these events the way Cooper does we are understanding to the way in which Bale and his company of men react to even the sight of Native Americans, no matter the tribe. With the key understanding that not all tribes were "rattlesnake people" such as the Comanche's are portrayed to be, we also understand how large a role provocation played in the way in which many of these Native American tribes were forced to react to the white settlers. “Hostiles” is a constant back and forth of differing views that seeks to find the smallest patch of common ground even if it doesn't realize that's what it's longing for. “Hostiles” is a violent movie, one draped in the blood of all that dare venture onto its wide plane, but as Cooper attempts to slyly suggest a plea for change among an onslaught of actions that only seem detrimental to humans a more well-rounded picture of why this plea feels so authentic comes into view. Cooper loves the soul of this period, these never-ending frontiers, the grit in each man's teeth, each particle of dust on each man's hat and he is sure to capture this scale and soulfulness in the open locations as rendered by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. The serenity of such wide landscapes and stark color differences directly conflicting with the rage inside so many of the characters. Further, Cooper then uses these familiar images and the well-worn traditions of the genre to steep the audience in what we believe we're getting ourselves into while dealing with the truth of these times in a way the pictures of the ‘50s and ‘60s weren't willing to admit. It is Cochrane's character and that of a smaller supporting turn by Ben Foster (always the reliable scumbag) that emphasizes the line each man walks between being the best version of himself and his own worst enemy. "We're all guilty of something," Foster's character says at one point, "I'm just asking for mercy." This comes just prior to Foster's prisoner asking Bale's Blocker who he's become. It's a moment that makes one sit up, makes one contemplate all sides of the argument, and forces one to evaluate the ideas of change, of absolutes, and of what can be done to correct moving forward rather than stay stagnate in this hell-like cycle that pushes men to the point they are unable to feel anything, much less the capability to come to terms with they've done and, in the end, moreover why they've done it. Blocker understanding his job has essentially become that of taking the life of another man. All of this would seem to indeed embody those words written by Lawrence so long ago, yet just as he is doing with the Western genre, Cooper deconstructs the myth of the American soul-not necessarily disagreeing with what has been said, but adding layers to it. This unabashed truth might make “Hostiles” hard to swallow for some, and it drags intermittently as it seems it was always destined to do, but with as strong an ensemble as on display and Cooper's sensibilities applying themselves intrinsically to this world “Hostiles” is ultimately as strong and gut-wrenching a film as that opening scene would indicate it to be.