(Here be spoilers. Many, many spoilers . . . )
I won’t be watching the Academy Awards this weekend. They bore me and have become insufferably political.
But I do wish that more recognition — at least, say, one nomination — had been given to what may have been last year’s strongest, and most surprising, film: Hostiles.
Written and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass), Hostiles is of a type that you can rarely find in modern cinema. It’s a film that explores with maturity one of America’s most controversial eras: its westward expansion; what that expansion did not just to the Indians, but to America’s settlers and soldiers; and what the Indians did to them.
Hostiles, set in 1892, is so not your typical, simplistic, un-nuanced, tsk-tsk-tsk finger-wag at Americans of the past.
This is clear from the movie’s opening, even though it features a quote from English novelist D.H. Lawrence that would sit well with many an American Studies professor: “The essential American is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
But in the first scene, a band of war-whooping Comanches, whose faces are covered in red paint, attacks the home of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike).
The Quaids are Americans who settled down for a new, quiet, life on the frontier.
The Comanches scalp and execute Rosalie’s husband, and, as she tries to escape into the forest with her three daughters, the Indians shoot and kill all three. Her infant bleeds out in her arms.
They pursue Rosalie into the woods, but she hides under a rock. The Comanches whoop back to the cabin, burn it down, and steal the horses.
The sequence feels like a response to Lawrence’s quip about the “hard, isolate, stoic...killer” American: Yeah, well, the Comanches will do that to you.
His “essential American,” who we meet in the next scene, is the film’s protagonist, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale).
The Army sent Blocker to New Mexico presumably to help quash what was left of Indians’ violent resistance.
Blocker has seen his share of Indian brutality, but he’s no angel himself. He’s killed many Indians, and he defends his past actions by saying he was just doing his job.
It’s hard not to cringe as Blocker sits atop his horse and watches a captured Indian warrior tied to a rope, dragged on the desert ground by horseback to nearby Fort Winslow. All the while Blocker is chewing on a piece of fruit. Just another day’s work on the frontier.
But, we’re reminded, while that type of warfare may be hostile to our modern eyes, it was the norm then and there. On the frontier, violence and death always lurked nearby.
Blocker was shaped more by his encounters with Indian warriors’ savagery than by any type of racial prejudice. As shown by his touching relationship with black Corporal Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors), he has none.
Hostiles goes out of its way to warn viewers against impulsively judging Blocker, who is the archetypical frontier American — strong, brave, fierce, honorable.
He’s a thinker, too. He’s reading Caesar’s autobiography in the original Latin, and he can speak the Cheyennes’ language better than any soldier on the frontier.
But Blocker is thrust into a strange world when he’s called into a surprise, early-morning meeting with the fort’s top official, Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang).
With the colonel is Jeremiah Wilks (Bill Camp), an urban, smug, judgmental, East Coast journalist visiting from Harper’s Weekly.
Biggs, with his finger to the wind, welcomed Wilks as part of a public relations stunt. As Americans’ sympathy for the Indians was growing, public support for the military’s campaign was waning. Biggs wants Wilks to write a favorable story that will go over well with readers in New York.
Wilks appears in only two scenes, but he’s the film’s poster boy for insufferable judgmentalism.
He is the columnist who sits in his comfortable Manhattan office while judging the men who fight our distant wars. He is short, overweight, and well-dressed — the opposite of Blocker. He is neither interested in nor capable of doing the dirty work of building America, as Blocker is. He is the judge from on high. Tough men like Blocker repulse him, but also shame him.
Biggs wants Wilks to be in the room when he gives the soon-to-retire Blocker his final major assignment: to execute an order from President Benjamin Harrison.
The President instructed Biggs to release the cancer-ridden Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family, so that the chief could return to his ancestral land in Montana before he dies.
Biggs orders Blocker to lead a company to escort the Cheyennes through the hostile terrain.
Blocker, who harbors a deep hatred of Yellow Hawk, refuses.
“Do you have any idea what he’s done?,” an incredulous Blocker asks Biggs. “He’s a butcher.”
“Then the two of you ought to get along just fine,” Wilks interjects, smirking.
Blocker, furious, but controlled, steps to within inches of Wilks.
“I saw what happened to the 4th [Cavalry Regiment] when Yellow Hawk and his dog soldiers got done with them,” Blocker says, looking down at Wilks, who for the first time looks that he knows not of what he speaks. “There wasn’t enough left of those poor men to fill a slop pale.”
“When we lay our heads down out here,” Blocker says. “We’re all prisoners.” Such was the price of civilizing a lawless land.
Blocker grudgingly accepts the mission after Biggs threatens to court martial him, which would endanger his pension.
As soon as Blocker’s company and Yellow Hawk’s family leave the compound, out of Biggs’s sight, Blocker orders Yellow Hawk chained.
Soon thereafter they come across the burned out house of the Quaid family. Blocker finds Rosalie, in shock, sitting on a bed with her dead children around her.
Now we see how gentle Blocker can be. He takes Rosalie in to his company, cares for her, and protects her. She, like Blocker, is quiet and strong, and, like Blocker, has a visceral fear and hatred of Indians because of what they did to her. And she becomes hysterical when she sees that in Blocker’s company are Cheyenne Indians.
The film, though, clearly tells us that Indians are not a monolith.
Rosalie soon comes to love Yellow Hawk’s family, who treat her with love.
And after a Comanche attack on the company, Yellow Hawk — who says the Comanches are not right in the head — persuades Blocker that he must unchain him if they’ll have any chance at survival.
“Remove the binds,” Yellow Hawk implores Blocker. “We can be of great help.”
Over the course of their horseback journey, Blocker’s company — which soon becomes a unified group of Americans and Indians — confronts not just Comanches, but white outlaw robbers who kidnap Rosalie and Yellow Hawk’s daughter, and white frontier settlers who see Blocker and the government as hostiles.
Blocker fights them all, losing many of his own men.
The journey is redemptive for both Blocker and Yellow Hawk — the essential American and the essential Indian. Their hatred was based on experience, on what happened — the only thing that could have happened — when two peoples with radically different cultures struggled over one land.
But when their experience brought them together, when they had the shared goal of defeating the hostiles who stood between them and Montana, their animosity vanished.
“I lost many friends and you have lost many as well,” Blocker tells Yellow Hawk in his native tongue, reconciling with his former enemy before the cancer takes him.
“They are a great loss for us both,” Yellow Hawk responds.
Hostiles beautifully explores Blocker’s “essential American” character by showing us what it is not. It also, as Cooper said, plumbs “the depths of the darkened psyche” of both perpetrators and victims of violence and war.
Blocker’s close friend, Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) is strong, brave, and has killed his share of Indians. But he is consumed by his guilt. It ruins him. He, unlike Blocker, can’t come to terms with what he needed to do as a soldier on the frontier.
“I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled,” Metz tells West Point graduate Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons). “If you do it enough, you get used to it.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Kidder responds meekly.
Kidder is a kind soul, and knows how to fight, but he’s a kid. He doesn’t want to see himself as a killer — a weakness when hostiles are hunting you.
His naivete ultimately does him in when he unchains disgraced Sgt. Charles Wills (Ben Foster). Wills joined the company when they briefly stopped at an Army fort in Colorado.
Lt. Col. Ross McCowan asked Blocker to take Wills to a court martial along the way to Montana. Wills had murdered a group of Indians with an axe. He was likely facing the gallows.
Wills is Blocker without a conscience. Strong, deadened to the horrors of war, and evil.
They had fought Indians side-by-side in the past, and Wills doesn’t hesitate to remind Blocker that he has done some terrible things, too; that it could just as likely be him in chains instead of Wills.
Naturally, then, Blocker despises Wills. So much, in fact, that he refuses to bury him after coming across his dead body the day after he murdered Kidder and escaped.
To do so would be to honor a bad man.
And Blocker, the essential American, is not a bad man. Rosalie Quaid, a beautiful, gentle, strong, woman, would not admire a bad man.
If you want to see a profoundly grown-up retrospective on America, on civilization versus barbarity, on good versus evil, on how the American character was forged, go see Hostiles while it’s still in theaters.