Year Released: 2017
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
(R, 135 min)
Genre: Action and Adventure, Drama, Western
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” D. H. Lawrence
With rare insight into the darker regions of the human soul, this film sets itself apart. And even more rare still, it does not take sides.
“…an uncompromising, brutal Western, (that) makes Clint Eastwood’s classic, somber Western Unforgiven look like Mary Poppins.” Bob Grimm
as we find out in the first scene, which certainly begs us to take a side. One moment Rosalie Quaid (Rosamend Pike) is sitting at the kitchen table giving her daughters a lesson in grammar while her husband saws through a piece of timber just outside the family cabin. The next, a swarm of Comanches slaughters all but Rosalie, who manages to hide in the woods behind a boulder, her bloodied, dead infant still cradled to her.
Next we meet Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) herding up stray Apache Indians and bringing them to nearby Fort Berringer, New Mexico, for incarceration. They are treated no better than cattle, their men roped and dragged. Captain Blocker oversees, his stoic countenance further masked by a ragged mustache and goatee.
But his eyes tell it all. They are, as one critic put it, both haunted and haunting. And dead, except when he angers, as he does when he is tasked with a final mission he is loath to take. Because Captain Blocker knows the northern Cheyenne dialect, he is ordered to escort the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk, his sworn enemy, back to his tribal lands in Montana.
To say there is bad blood between the two is a gross understatement. Because the blood is real, not metaphorical. Each has killed the other side ruthlessly. In fact, a visiting journalist suggests that Captain Blocker has taken more scalps than Sitting Bull himself.
Just outside Fort Berringer, Captian Blocker announces that the "parade" is over and orders his men to put the chief and his grown son in chains. He will perform his duty, but he will treat the chief like the savage he sees him as.
But then something intervenes. From a ridge on high the captain sees a burned out farm. Inside the burned cabin he finds Rosalie Quaid, still cradling her dead baby and telling the captain to keep quiet so a not to wake her girls. A slight nod indicates the two older daughters already wrapped for death on the beds. She is in that nether region of shock where reality and delusion simultaneously hold sway. The girls, already bundled for burial, are not to be awakened.
To call this a Road to Damscus moment is probably too grand, but the scene awakens something deep within Blocker, a sense of decency and tenderness long buried. Slowly, the journey to Montana becomes a spiritual one, too. The tenderness Bocker shows for the young widow begins to thaw other parts, too. It is more for necessity that he finally unchains the chief and his son, so they can help fend off a Comanche attack, but the chains do not go on again.
Each character has seen or been part of brutal death, and it has affected them differently. For Rosalie, it is a fight not to take her own life:
Sometimes I envy the finality of death, the certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I waken.
For Captain Brock it is the slow acknowledgement of what endless war does to them all:
Understand this, when we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners.
As the journey goes on, he and the chief finally talk. It is in Cheyenne, and we only see subtitles, but that in itself sets their talk apart. Exactly what they say is not completely knowable and somehow sacrosanct.
The great performances by the three leads are augmented by a great cast, “2017’s greatest and most underrated acting ensemble” as critic Bob Grimm speculates. Rory Cochrane’s Metz, a fellow soldier suffering "melancholia," as he describes it, personifies the toll of taking lives for a living.
And Ben Foster, playing Sgt. Willis, a soldier about to be hanged for massacring some Indians, states a central theme the film sets up. He aptly demonstrates the thin line between a soldier’s mission to kill and one who takes on the killing for his own purposes. He and Captain Blocker are not that different, according the Sgt. Willis,
I don’t know how you’ve done it all these years, seeing all the things you’ve seen and all the things you’ve done. It makes you feel inhuman after a while.
The rugged landscapes also augment the themes. The journey’s changing terrain, with its red granite formations, its seas of grass, and finally the wooded mountains of Montana are as stark and lonely as the film’s characters. Yet, like them, the landscapes possess a strength and beauty at their core, reminiscent of the gorgeous cinematography and cast from the John Ford/John Wayne collaborations in FortApache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Like the equally brilliant 2017 Wind River – "Silent. Lonely. And cold. The territory and some of the people, too,” – this is an Oscar worthy film as well. Certainly the actors should have been nominated.
But don’t take my word for it. Go yourself. It isn’t soft, funny, or pretty. But Hostiles is excellent in every sense of the word.
Captain Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk ultimately have an understanding. The scars from their mutual brutality will never disappear, but they are in the past.
Perhaps it would be fitting for them to break bread together. I have chosen Cheyenne Batter Bread, easy and simple to make, from a very old recipe passed down through the years.
Cheyenne Batter Bread
Recipe by Colleen Sowa
This is a very old recipe that has been passed down through the years...
1 qt sweet milk (whole milk)
1 pt white corn meal
1 Tbsp butter, melted (or margarine)
1/2 tsp salt
Bring milk to a full boil, stir in corn meal slowly. Cool. Add well beaten egg yolks, melted butter and salt. Add stiffly beaten egg whites. Bake in a moderate (350 - 375 degree) oven until well done.