Hostiles: A Western with a Difference

Hostiles movie, Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Scott Cooper, Wes Studi, On Saturday night we went to see Hostiles, a small movie with a small footprint. It lacks enough marketing to build an audience and has not generated enough word-of-mouth to make a difference.

That’s a pity because Hostiles is an excellent movie on many fronts. And it means that many people won’t see it because they have never heard of it. Here’s the simple premise:

“In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.”

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

What that doesn’t tell you fills the movie’s entire 134-minute running time. You do not want to miss a minute. The Army captain, Joseph Blocker, (Christian Bale) and the Cheyenne Chief, Yellow Hawk, (Wes Studi) are implacable enemies with a history of fighting one another and losing good men in the battles. The captain seethes with anger at this assignment, which he sees as coddling a hostile killer. The chief, suffering from  cancer, just wants to go home to die. Neither really wants anything to do with the other.

Throw into a mix a woman (Rosamund Pike) who has lost her entire family to a raid by a Rattlesnake Comanche war band. She is grieving, traumatized and terrified of any Native American she sees.

A Journey of Emotions

The movie takes us along on their trek from the New Mexico desert, a landscape as hard as Capt. Blocker’s heart, to the verdant Valley of the Bears in Montana. But that’s just the geography. It also takes us on a journey through anger and fear, hatred and fellowship, forgiveness and the unforgivable. None of this comes easy.

Hostiles, Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Cheyenne

Capt. Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk strategize

As the landscape, beautifully captured by the excellent Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, changes from yellow rock and tall cliffs to lush forests and mountain meadows, the complex relationships among the travelers also softens.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Never has the phrase, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” been better depicted than in the movie’s beginning. The same Comanche tribe that killed Rosalie Quaid’s husband and three children, one a baby in her arms, tracks and attacks the travelers. The situation presents Capt. Joseph Blocker with a choice—and the first step in his personal struggle to redeem  himself of the violence that has shaped his life.

I have a great deal of respect for an actor who can handle an unknown language and speak it in dialog as if it comes naturally to him. The flexible Mr. Bale does this with the Cheyenne tongue, which is unlike the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish he has spoken in other films. Most of us would have trouble remembering and delivering our lines credibly in American English but he handles conversations in Cheyenne (subtitled) like a native speaker.

Also, pay attention to the women in Hostiles. White or Cheyenne, they face the same problems and issues, have the same challenges, and react differently to the violence around them. Their world is shaped by men but they take charge of their own lives in whatever ways they can.

Rosamund Pike, Hostiles,

Mrs. Quaid and Elk Woman confront some hostiles

Hostiles has a 72% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and 71% of the audience Liked it. I hope this post helps to raise that Liked score even higher because I thought it was a gem of a movie. Yes, it’s a tad too long. Yes, it focuses more on white redemption than indigenous anger. Nobody’s perfect.

Box Office Struggle

In terms of the box office, Hostiles has struggled against a very strong list of Oscar contenders. People who are trying to see all the nominees for Best Picture before the Academy Awards on March 4 don’t have the time or attention for a small, thoughtful, movie like this one.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a noir film. Hostiles has a lot of action and some great dialogue by screenwriter and director Scott Cooper from a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart. The cast does an excellent job with the material.

Hostiles has so far grossed $21,237,413 in seven weeks on an estimated production budget of $39,000,000, so it’s still financially underwater.

Hostiles Engages the Mind

Hostiles is not a great movie. But it is a great Western in the tradition of Shane, High Noon, Unforgiven and Open Range. It engages your mind as well as your emotions. You will leave the theater thinking about any number of ideas and asking yourself more than a few questions. First and foremost: who is really the “hostile,” with all its connotations of barbarity?

I wondered—as I often do—what the history of this country would have been if the indigenous tribes had understood the danger in time, What if they had been able to abandon their traditional inter-tribal hostilities and presented the white invaders with a united front? In that scenario, who would have been escorting whom?

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