Venturing into its blood-soaked history and the atrocities which shaped American society, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is an unflinching exploration of the unspeakable cruelty of which human kind is capable, and culpable. However, in contrast to the pessimism of a D. H. Lawrence quote which prefaces a truly galling opening sequence, there is the slightest flicker of redemption and hope to be found in the Black Mass director’s latest film.
“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Paralleling acts of brutality in the early stages support the great English writer’s thesis. In a humble, remote dwelling, dwarfed by the rugged mountains that surround it, a mother (Rosamund Pike) gives her two daughters English lessons while an infant child rests in a cot nearby. A scene of domestic serenity. The father of the family is chopping wood outside when a group of American Indians on horseback appear over the crest of a hill. In a matter of seconds, all but the mother are slaughtered. She is left cradling a bloody bundle of swaddling clothes, her baby hit by a stray bullet.
Choosing to first posit such shocking violence committed against helpless white characters by the ravaging indigenous people is a debatable decision on Cooper’s part. He follows it with the introduction of Christian Bale’s Capt. Joseph Blocker taunting an Indian family he and his men have ensnared, the father lassoed and dragged through the dirt by one of the horsemen. The seemingly lesser severity of the latter act, in spite of its inherent cruelty, already guides our sympathy in a certain direction. However, as time and many miles roll on, we learn that there is a history of great violence on both sides. The oppression and subjugation by military forces of the indigenous peoples, borne out of the great American fear of the ‘other’, provokes acts of retaliation and retribution. It is a on a long and perilous journey from New Mexico to Montana which sees Cooper weigh each side of this divide.
Capt. Blocker is commanded – much to his chagrin – to transport the ailing Chief Yellow Hawk (a stony-faced, dignified Wes Studi), and his family, from captivity to the lands of his ancestors, where he will pass away. As a storm rolls and thunders far in the distance, as does Max Richter’s score reverberate around the periphery and the weight of many past battles rages somewhere in the unspoken regard between the two men. Burdened by past ills – both suffered and committed – the effects of a lifetime of killing hang off Blocker like an old saddle. Bale’s performance is one of gruff determination which over time comes apart at the seams to reveal wounds long-buried.
An early crossing of paths sees Blocker and the bereaved mother meet and Pike, whose Rosalie arcs from a shattered catatonia to quiet, if unsteady resolve, admirably conveys incomprehensible grief; a silent, desperate scream which fights its way to the surface when she first beholds Yellow Hawk and his family upon arriving to join the rest of the group is one moment of raw emotion that really makes its mark. At nearly two and a quarter hours long, the run time of Cooper’s film echoes the arduous undertaking of an ever-evolving, increasingly weary posse but Masanobu Takayanagi’s makes use of the brutal, beautiful surroundings to capture truly breathtaking vistas.
Hostiles is not one for the faint-hearted but much like Clint Eastwood’s representation of violence in Unforgiven, there is no glory to be found in killing here. It is earned, deserved, a necessary act committed as vengeance or retribution, but there is no congratulations or back-slapping. It stays with you. But you get back on your horse and carry on down the road.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens