A cast, a crew, a director all work unfathomable hours on a film project. They believe in it, or come to believe in it; they think the story and the script are first-rate, and that the film they’re making is going to be excellent. Post-production finishes, and the cast and crew gather in a theater and see it for the first time. And it’s great; austere, deeply tragic, haunting, powerful. And then the studio looks at it, has no idea how to market it, and it gets dumped into theaters in January, when everyone in the world is watching the Oscar films that were released in two theaters in late December. No buzz, no hype, and the terrific film you were working on gets no buzz, and little audience.
That’s the story of Hostiles. It’s a wonderful film. It’s sad and haunting and beautiful, and features absolutely stunning acting performances in all the major roles. Based on seeing it, I would vote for Rosamund Pike for Best Actress and Christian Bale for Best Actor and Wes Studi for Best Supporting Actor in a heartbeat. And when I saw it, the theater was all but empty, and when I told my son about it, his response was “that Western? That was good?”
As the film begins, a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is teaching grammar to her young daughters. Her husband is outside their home, doing chores. A rampaging Comanche war party attacks, kills her husband and daughters. Holding her baby to her chest, she runs into a nearby woods, as the Comanche shoot at her. She barely makes it, finds a hiding place, tries to stay quiet. They miss her; she’s alive. Then she looks down at the infant, and realizes that a spare bullet has killed it. And she falls apart.
Cut to US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), on patrol. He’s rounded up an Apache, and takes him back to the fort, mistreating him all the way. While there, his commanding officer, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) give him new orders. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years. He’s dying of cancer, and wants to go home to Montana, and the President of the United States has granted him clemency for that purpose. Blocker is to take a small company of men and escort Yellow Hawk home.
Blocker doesn’t want to do it. He is a seasoned Indian fighter, close to retirement, and loathes those he calls, indiscriminately, ‘savages.’ He’s lost too many friends, fought too many battles, taken too many lives. No. But Biggs is adament, and tells him that refusing this order will cost him his pension. And so Blocker reluctantly obeys his orders, and agrees to go.
Bale’s performance as Blocker is just riveting. He’s a complex, troubled, haunted man. He despises the Cheyenne, yet speaks their language fluently. He reads by the campfire every night; Caesar on the conquest of Gaul, in Latin. He is a brilliant cavalry commander, and a man of faith, however battered. And so he puts together a small team of soldiers, a mix of men he respects and has fought with–Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), even more damaged and war-weary than Blocker, and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), an African-American with whom Blocker has fought and who he respects immensely. They’re joined by Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), a newby straight from West Point, and Phillipe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), not only new to the service, but a Frenchman new to America entirely. Along with Yellow Hawk, they’re accompanied by Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his son, Elk Woman (Q’Orianka Kilcher), Black Hawk”s wife, and two younger female family members.
And so they set off, and quickly discover the burned out Quaid farm, and in the charred interior of the house, Rosalie, driven half-mad from grief. She has somehow retrieved her dead children, and dressed them, but she insists that they’re alive, that the soldiers keep quiet so as not to wake them. When the soldiers attempt to dig graves, she fights them, insisting that she will dig all the graves for her family, and tries to until her strength gives out entirely. And Blocker is able to treat her respectfully, kindly and solicitously. Pike’s performance is completely convincing and completely heart-breaking. She brought me to tears more than once. And so the soldiers take her with them on their journey.
One of the many things I loved about this movie is that this group of disparate characters were all superbly rendered, completely realized individuals. Rory Cochrane’s depiction of a brave man ravaged by untreated PTSD was stunning, as was Majors as a man determined to maintain absolute professionalism despite the weight of his own loaded history.
The Comanche return, and casualties are suffered, and Blocker comes to respect Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, and their insight and expertise. And Elk Woman befriends Rosalie. Alliances are formed, friendships tentatively embarked upon. But Sgt. Metz’s problems run too deep for any of them to cope with, and we sense how precarious is his hold on his sanity. Plemons is excellent too, as a man in over his head, but trying desperately to cling to some humanity.
And I can’t say enough about Wes Studi. He’s honestly one of the great American actors, one of those actors who the camera loves. I first fell in love with him as Magua, in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and have followed his career ever since. His performance as Yellow Hawk is utterly compelling; you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s dying, but he retains his dignity and authority. He’s imprisoned, but still a wily tactician. And he’s capable of tremendous empathy. It’s a special performance by a marvelous actor.
And that story, the marvelous cinematography and haunting music and superb performances are all in the service of a history lesson of the first order. This is a film that helps us feel, not just witness but deeply and powerfully feel the savagery and violence and tragedy and deeply distressing brutality of the history of the American West, and the ill-treatment to which our forebearing Americans subjected those native to these shores. It’s a film about the cost of colonialism, about the cruel inhumanity of the American pursuit and acquisition of the wealth of our beautiful continent. Blocker, as created by Bale, represents the American propensity for viciousness required for the kind of conquest we felt entitled to pursue. It’s not just a marvelous film, it’s an essential one. And I, for one, was grateful to have seen it.