I absolutely loathed Hostiles, the new Western film from Scott Cooper that proves once and for all why Westerns are so out of vogue. Starring Christian Bale as a dangerous and notorious Army captain who is forced to escort a dying Cheyenne chief, a former foe on the battlefield, equally notorious, through hostile territory back to his homeland as if on a mission from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The film is terrible; boring as sin, casually regressive, and perfectly pointless; a manifestation of why audiences have turned on the Western genre at large and a fine example of its backwards thinking mannerisms.
Cooper wastes no time filling us in on Bale’s Captain Joseph J. Blocker’s distaste for the “redskins.” When we first meet him, he’s seen rounded them up like hogs, even lassoing a woman and child on the run from a life behind bars for being not white. We’re told by many characters, on multiple occasions, about the atrocities that they’ve committed, commenting that they’ve slaughtered, “Men, women and children of all colors” while Blocker being infamously fond of laying waste to those with a Native pigmentation. This is a harsh, unforgiving patch of land filled in by harsh, unforgiving characters and Hostiles never lets you forget for one second just how grim and unpleasant and dangerous the Wild Wild West is.
When his superior officer orders Blocker to form a roving party and deliver the aforementioned Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) all the way up to Montana, Blocker throws a hissy fit, screaming at the stars, cursing his luck. He’s ready to throw in the towel and receive a court marshall. Anything to avoid transporting Native Scum. It’s only when his pension is threatened that Blocker finally gives in and agrees to act the Pony Express to Yellow Hawk and his family with Hostiles turning into an old-fashion road trip movie that only punctuates its unbearably lengthy stretches of silence to deliver the oddly non-engaging action sequence (some of which take place entirely offscreen) or stop for characters to mull over all the Very Bad Things they’ve done soldiering. White men who have their hands in genocide that we’re meant to pity for “just following orders.”
All is way too quiet on this Western front, with Hostiles presenting a litmus test for how long audiences will endure characters standing around, staring at the horizon, refusing to speak or do anything much of interest. It’s so boring that I started counting how many seconds it would take characters to reply to one another in the midst of a conversation. It ranged anywhere from 4 to 15 seconds. Kill me now.
Rosamund Pike appears to be a highlight as a woman whose entire family is murdered by Commanches. In a sequence that while admittedly tense is ultimately ridiculous – her husband, daughters and bundled up baby receiving skillfully-aimed one-hit-kill bullets while Pike’s Rosalie Quaid, running in a wide open tundra, reduces her pursuer’s aim to Stormtropper-levels, dancing around their lead like Neo – Rosalie escapes her would-be scalpers only to essentially lose her mind, tending over the corpses of her rotting unit, before eventual rescue by Blocker and his men.
This is all, of course, just setting the table to flip things around, Blocker and Rosalie eventually coming around to the notion that not all natives are bloodthirsty savages out for scalps and, hey, might actually be handy in the various scuttles that occur going from Point A to Point B. Blocker’s change of heart in particular is mismanaged and hollow, his coming around to Yellow Hawk both impersonal and unsatisfying in how it’s developed and blockheadedly simplistic. That’s probably because Hostiles’ tries on a retarded treatise on racism that contends “You just gotta hang with people from the other race and then you’ll all be friends!”; its simplistic view of racial relations in post-Civil War America so knuckle-headed and balding that it offends almost indifferently. The film has nothing to say beyond both sides have done bad things, a nonchalant whataboutism that is supposed to excuse the annihilation and near genocide of an entire race, while opening a door for yet another filmic presentation of Native Americans that proves both racist and regressive and a last man standing White Savior who laments the mistakes of his past.
Hostiles likes its Natives one of two ways – yipping and killing or stoic and wise. The comanches savagely slaughter, no reason to their killing beyond bloodlust.. Some characters check both boxes, like Yellow Hawk who in a past life was a ruthless killer but now fills the role of noble savage. I for one am unwilling to accept the notion that Scott is attempting to flip the script on the stereotype-fueled portrait of American Indians in film (which I’m sure is his intention) because he simply doesn’t devote any time to developing any of the cast who isn’t white into characters worth caring about. Worse still, these native characters are despicably used: functioning as fuel for Bale’s character arc, the means through which he can change into a better man.
At one point, one of Blocker’s party laments his treatment of the Natives people, offering Yellow Hawk a bag of tobacco and apologizing, “I’m sorry for what we’ve done to the Native people.” It comes out of nowhere, functioning more as a filmmaker wanting to speak through his character than something that we’ve been led to think this particular character would actually say, done in such a blatantly obvious and narratively oblivious way that it had me audibly sighing at the painful lack of subtlety Scott employed. The various Kumbaya moments so eye-rolling and unearned that they might as well have been funneling in the 1997 Smash Mouth hit “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
Exhausting racism aside, Hostiles is just plain boring. Unflinchingly dull, it refuses to allow any central narrative to drive plot forward, instead introducing various threats and then dispensing with them before they ever become formidable foes. The film feels like a handful of 30-minute episodes from a canned CineMax show stacked atop one another, at least four disparate sections of the film proving unable to coalesce into a greater whole. The lack of momentum has the film charging to a halt, stuttering and puttering to get to the seemingly unreachable finish line.
Hostiles opens with a quote from D.K. Lawrence, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Not one thing in Hostiles proves up to the task of being more meaningful than that simple and effective 16-word meditation on the age of Manifest Destiny. Sure Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike are solid, even if the developing romance between them is unforgivably godawful, and there’s a lot of stuff that looks pretty on the screen but my god if this isn’t one of the most feet-dragging, recklessly dull, entirely birdbrained, morally challenged Westerns I’ve seen this century.
CONCLUSION: ‘Hostiles’ is a putrid Western that’s both offensively bland and boring as sin, that seems to think it’s saying something important by claiming that “not all Native Americans are terrible” and showing that, hey would you look at that, people with different skin colors can get along; Scott Cooper’s film making me want to bash my head against a wall until it was finally (finally!) over.