Hostiles and all the images you see in this review are owned by Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Scott Cooper
Okay, so MAYBE I jumped the gun a bit when I declared Phantom Thread to be the last of the 2017 hold overs as apparently THIS film (as well as Molly’s Game apparently) is was similarly hoping for some award buzz before reaching the general public. The difference HERE though (and probably why I hadn’t heard about it until 2018) is that it DIDN’T get the recognition it was looking for as it hasn’t been nominated for any Oscar, nor is it really showing up on critic associations’ BEST OF lists. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s BAD, right? I mean did Wonder Woman or Ingrid Goes West get any Oscar nods? Did Happy Death Day even get a Teen Choice Award!? There are never enough awards to go around for all the great films that come out in a year, so MAYBE this one will turn out to be the sleeper hit of the season! We can only hope, right? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows Captain Joseph J Blocker (Christina Bale) who is not just any US solider at the turn of the nineteenth century, but one who seems to SPECIALIZE in hunting down Indigenous people. His job description is starting to go out of style however as the US government is starting to make token efforts to give back to the people they’ve committed genocide against, and their latest effort is to take one of Blocker’s prisoners, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), along with his family (Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty, and Xavier Horsechief) back to their tribal lands in Montana. Now you’d think that a long trek from his holding cell in New Mexico ALL the way to Montana would benefit from an escort that ISN’T led up by not only the guy who has killed SO many Indigenous people but ALSO the guy who put Yellow Hawk there in the first place, but I guess it only adds to the symbolic nature of this token gesture. So with only a handful of soldiers (Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, and Timothée Chalamet) and his best buddy Thomas (Rory Cochrane), the party sets off to deliver these people back to their homeland and will hopefully everyone won’t kill each other in the process! Things get messy right away though as they come across a home decimated by a band of Indigenous Bandits where the only survivor is Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family was slaughtered in the massacre by the bandits who are still out there somewhere. Will the soldiers have to put aside their prejudices just to survive against this new threat? Will Captain Blocker learn the error of his ways and come to respect his former enemies? What hardships will they be forced to endure before they reach their destination!?
Man, I was having NONE of this movie’s crap; not for a second during its EXCRUCIATINGLY long run time. It’s yet another lazily written exploration of the way Indigenous people have suffered under American Imperialism that misses the point entirely by ratcheting up the white guilt to eleven and turns what COULD have been a decently meditative look at the horrors we inflicted on those here before us into a pretension and insufferable slog. How else would you get a movie this self-flagellating that also feels so smugly superior about what it’s doing to the detriment of its own message? Say what you will about Mel Gibson (fuck the guy), but as a director at least his contradictory views of suffering, redemption, and our weakness to sin are coming from a genuine place of inner turmoil! Then again the director of THIS film isn’t a complete monster which gives it a point in its favor, but there are just so many wasted opportunities and bafflingly tone oblivious filmmaking choices in terms of tone, framing, structure, and pacing, that the whole thing collapses in on itself and ends up making Wind River almost look halfway decent in comparison. Seriously, how naïve was I that I felt THAT was a low bar for white people trying to convey the plight Indigenous people? All I had to do was wait less than a year to be reminding that things can always get worse!
The big glaring problem right off the bat is that this is a movie about the atrocities against Indigenous people that focuses squarely on how it makes white people feel. Oh, and not just ANY white people! Oh no, we’re talking about a dude with more Indigenous blood on his hands than Custer; his last stand at Little Bighorn by the way, our hero was a solider in. And yes, I did say hero. This is a redemption story for a man who spent his entire career rounding up, imprisoning, enslaving, and murdering Indigenous people in the American southwest, and yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s not only capable of changing his mind completely over the course of a few weeks but that we’re supposed to ROOT for him having done so. After going on a road trip with someone he considers to be a sworn enemy along with his family, this guy manages to turn his entire world upside down and he’s all of a sudden sympathetic to their cause. What, so he never had a heart to heart with any of the dozens of indigenous people at his fort that he has locked in cages? You’d think at least ONE of them could have given him a pat on the back to cheer him up and help him get over his genocidal tendencies! Is a redemption story like this impossible to pull off? I certainly don’t think so, but they certainly didn’t do it here.
If you want to successfully tell this kind of story, the first thing you don’t do is frame it around the victimizer and let their victims exist on the periphery of the story which is what they do here as Christian Bale’s character is the focal point of everything while the group of Indigenous people with him are shoved into the background and barely get any lines or even characterization. Captain Blocker and Yellow Hawk have every right to hate each other and in their own ways occupy the same level of authority and importance within this story and within their respective groups, but we only ever see things from Blocker’s perspective. He gets to speechify about liberal yahoos who don’t understand what it’s like on the front line, he gets an artsy scene of screaming silently into the desert to express his inner main pain over being forced to take this assignment, and he’s the only one who’s emotional stakes and personal growth are in any way explored. It feels like a given that movies ABOUT Indigenous people will still end up having them be secondary in their own stories to instead focus on how a white person (i.e. Hollywood’s idea of DEFAULT) reacts to it. I’m gonna bring up someone ELSE who should fuck off, but as flawed as The Birth of a Nation is, that movie was a necessary reaction to the sanitized and white centered films that tried to ease out some of the responsibility they had in the subjugation of an entire race of people by pointing out one or two “good” white people. It knew to never take the focus away from the slaves which made it impossible to dissociate the horrors of slavery from the institutions and the individual people who perpetuated it. In this movie? Yellow Hawk’s family (who were locked in cages I will remind you) barely gets to talk! They’re just hanging in the background most of the time and only ever do something if it will in some way advance Blocker’s story arc, and we only get brief glimpses of the man that the film TELLS us Blocker is; the one who has killed more Indigenous people than any other living solider. What about THEIR story? Heck, what about the Yellow Hawk and his family’s story!? This movie is so guilty about its own character that it can’t own up to what he is, and in trying to avoid that question we get a movie that feels embarrassingly comprised at every turn. And that’s just for one dude’s story! I haven’t even gotten into the OTHER ways this movie manages to be tonally oblivious to the heavy subject matter it purports to be about! There’s a gang of Indigenous outlaws who get no characterization AT ALL (even fewer lines than the Yellow Hawk family) but then the white people who once again round up, imprison, enslave, and murder Indigenous people, get characterization and focus out the wazoo! There are characters in this who get raped and it’s only in here to give the male characters a reason to have another fight! I’m not going to spoil what happens at the end of this movie, but it manages to end on an even WORSE note than you would have expected from a film this tonally messed up.
Even if we put all of that aside and take this movie’s themes and framing at face value, it’s still not a particularly interesting movie. The journey from New Mexico to Montana is not one filled with excitement as so much of it is watching horses amble along and then watching them all set up camp which happens like a dozen times in this movie. Seriously, there are more scenes of tent maintenance and campfire sitting in this film than in a Boy Scout instructional video, and there’s just not enough plot to carry us through these slower scenes. As I said, Blocker’s arc is rather perfunctory as his change is more or less inexplicable, so without having much character building for him to do between revelations, these camping scenes just sit there like a never ending series of elevator rides where no one is talking to each other. Are there good points to the story? Sure. As much as I was wary of the one dimensional portrayal of the Indigenous Bandits, Rosamund Pike as one of the victims of their crimes does a solid enough job portraying the trauma that she very clearly suffered. I even liked Jesse Plemons as the rookie of the group who honestly would have been a much better character to follow than Blocker as he DOESN’T have a clearly defined history gumming up the works of his character arc; not that it STILL wouldn’t have been problematic to have this dude overshadow the Indigenous characters, but it at least would have been a BETTER version of what we got. At best, this movie has some decent distractions along the way which you DO want in a road trip movie (*cough* Blues Brothers *cough*), but there’s just not enough growth from these scenes for any of the characters to make them feel like parts of a cohesive whole instead of just disparate pieces in an incomplete puzzle.
Okay, I’ve got to at least try to be fair here. Let’s not just jump down this movie’s throat without at least TRYING to understand what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish and what many other critics saw in this film. The movie is about trauma; whether it’s Rosamond Pike’s horrifying situation, Christian Bale’s lifetime of warfare and murder, and even some of the other soldiers like Jesse Plemons who’s new to this whole “killing” thing and Rory Cochrane who’s clearly dealing with PTSD. A journey like this which pushes all of them to their breaking point is not a bad way of having them confront their issues, and it also doesn’t sugarcoat how harsh it was to live in this environment and how merely confronting your trauma isn’t always enough to save you from its affects. Looking at it JUST in terms of these characters and how they react to an increasingly terrible situation, I can see to an extent what people like about this. The problem is I just cannot separate these elements from the rest of the movie which is absolutely insufferable. I can’t get invested in Christian Bale’s character because the movie puts on kid gloves around him and it never feels like an HONEST portrayal. There’s half your movie right there that no longer works for me! There’s also the fact that I can’t ignore just how little the Indigenous characters are allowed to do in this movie despite how much they’re used as plot devices to keep the story going and how much the underlying themes about guilt, trauma, and dealing with an awful past rely on their plight being put front and center. Everyone TALKS about THE NATIVE AMERICANS like they’re some mythical bygone society, yet no one bothers to include the ones who are STILL around in any of the discussions, and it doesn’t come off like it’s intentional commentary on white guilt rather than it’s just blindly indulging in it. There’s no reason they couldn’t have told Christian Bale’s story about slowly realizing the monster he became while at the same time giving his victims a platform and a prominent voice within the movie, and the fact that they are merely there to get shoved into the background is just the most obvious tip off that we are dealing with a fundamentally ass backwards film.
I’d say this movie is worse than Wind River mostly because its goals aren’t as lofty yet it fails just as hard. Wind River didn’t work for me, but I could see what they were going for and it did succeed in some areas; mostly in having Indigenous characters have more than a handful of lines in the entire film. This film isn’t going for anything particularly complex regarding its views on how Indigenous people were treated by the US government as its focus is mostly on an individual character level instead of shining a light on systemic issues, but even given such a softball of a premise to work with (let’s fix these dozen or so people instead of THE SYSTEM), it still can’t manage to muster up enough creative energy or self-awareness to pull it off. Some people are gonna like this which I won’t argue with them about, but while I always felt a little bit hesitant about my distaste for Wind River, I have no such reservations here and will let you all know that this is a waste of your time and money. It’s certainly not worthy checking out at the theater, unless you need a place to take a nap, and you honestly don’t even need to see it when it gets a home release considering how many better movies like it are already out there that you could be watching instead. Heck, Wonder Woman got just as much across in ONE SCENE as this movie does in its entire runtime; and they both probably had the same amount of lines for their Indigenous cast members!