I’d like to fully disclose at the beginning of this post that I am not a Westerns ‘expert’, but do have a few films I truly love within the genre. Once Upon A Time in the West and The Wild Bunch top my list of favorites. I can’t remember the last time I considered seeing a Western in a theatre, but the Hostiles’ marketing strategy, labelling it “best western since Unforgiven”, did the trick. I studied Unforgiven as a screenwriting student in film school, and really grew to appreciate it as a solid film. On a side note, The Quick and the Dead was released after Unforgiven and is a pretty good Western as well. To have the audacity to compare Hostiles to Unforgiven, it must be a good film, right?
Well, it’s not a bad film. The dark, psychological tone of the film is set from the opening frame containing the following quote written by English writer, D.H. Lawrence: “The essential American is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer”. This quote is followed by the brutal killings of Mrs. Rosalind Quaid’s entire family by the Comanche. It was hard for me to watch a wife and mother witness and survive such a brutal attack on screen. Rosalind Pike’s performance thoroughly manifests a realistic range of emotions during this story.
We meet quite a few killers throughout this film, most notably, Christian Bale as Captain Jonathan Blocker, a genocidal killer, renown for his efficiency during times of war. He is a well-read, hostile racist, who rationalizes and trivializes his murders as doing his “job”. In a twist of fate, Captain Blocker’s last assignment before retirement is to escort a Cheyenne family through perilous territory into Montana where the family patriarch, Chief Yellow Hawk, who is dying of cancer, will be laid to rest. Blocker hates Chief Yellow Hawk. In contrast, Blocker is accompanied by Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (Rory Cochran), a man that has not been able to process the brutal things he has done under the guise of democracy, and is struggling to cope with these realities both emotionally and psychologically.
Blocker insists on shackling the escorts as if they are prisoners, even when Chief Yellow Hawk confronts him with the likelihood they will encounter the Comanche during their journey. This likelihood becomes a reality during a confrontation with the murderers of Mrs. Quaid’s family, resulting in the loss of several of Blocker’s men. Violence serves as an interesting device to unify captors and captives against a common enemy in this film, which within itself is a powerful statement.
Hostiles lags at times but makes a powerful statement directly connected to the quote in the opening of the film--Violence is woven into the very foundation of America. During a panel at NATPE, Byron Allen of Entertainment Studios cited the need to highlight the violent displacement of Native Americans from their land as one of his primary motivators in acquiring this film. This is something we definitely need to talk more about. For some, however, Hostiles’ social significance will be overshadowed by the brutality of the Comanche, Christian Bale’s few strong moments won’t be enough, and the well executed homage to John Ford unimpressive.
My Rating: B