Writer/director Scott Cooper's latest film, Hostiles, starts with a bang and ends with a whimper, but it's what happens in between those diametrically opposed sensations that makes this one of the most engaging and complex films of 2017.
Cooper hits the gas quickly with an opening sequence in which a band of rabid Comanche raiders descend upon a seemingly peaceful family of white settlers. The natives are quickly identified by the settlers and the film as antagonists, perhaps the hostiles of the title, and before long they've destroyed the family, their home, and stolen their horses, all seemingly out of primal greed. It's an awkward entry point in this day and age of the reexamination of the old west and the manner in which Native Americans are being portrayed on screen.
Far from the stilted caricatures of the Johns Wayne and Ford, these days Native Americans are more likely to be represented on screen as sympathetic characters, which is refreshing, because after decades of dehumanization at the hands of Hollywood, they finally have gotten a chance to shine by occasionally telling stories that feature them if not as heroes, at least as human. This is why the opening is so shocking, the Native Americans are not shown in shades of gray, they are evil murderers. Marauders whose sole purpose is to strip the settlers of their safety, possessions, and lives. However, this is all part of Hostiles' plan. Not everyone you expect to be a villain is evil, and those you expect to trust often betray you, and one person who is about to learn this lesson very well is Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale).
Following this burst of senseless violence we are introduced to Blocker in the middle of rounding up a family of escaped Cheyenne prisoners trying to make their way back home from a detention center in New Mexico at which the Captain is stationed. Blocker has a fearsome reputation as a ruthless slayer of the Red Injun, and it precedes him where ever he goes. It gets to the point that even his contemporaries become wary of his single minded focus on ridding the west of savages without room for nuance, shall we say.
As he is winding up his military career after 20-odd years of acting as an enforcer for a government bent on eradicating natives, he soon becomes the victim of changing social values when he is chosen as the escort on a mission of mercy to repatriate a dying Cheyenne chief back to his native Wyoming. This is no ordinary Cheyenne chief, though, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), has just as fierce a reputation as Blocker, and the two have a long history of mutual violence. At first Blocker refuses, as one would likely do in the face of such a command, but when he is faced with a court-martial he submits, and so he gathers a team of trusted allies to make sure that the Chief and his family are held in check on the several week long journey across the untamed west.
One of his most trusted comrades is Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane), a man who has been in the service nearly as long as Blocker and who serves as his commanding officer's silent conscience throughout the journey. Metz has seen everything that Blocker has seen, but rather that building up an unending animus toward the natives, he's grown weary of the fight and begun to question whether or not his fight is still righteous.
On their way to Wyoming, Blocker and his team stumble across the massacre depicted in the opening sequence, only to discover that a survivor remains. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is found cradling her dead child in her arms while protecting her silent children in her burned out home. Appropriately traumatized, Rosalie triggers an empathy in Blocker that, initially, comes from their mutual fear and hatred of the savages who've taken so much from them. Seeing a kindred soul in her, Blocker brings her along with the party with the intention of dropping her off at the next post before continuing on with his mission.
However, things don't quite go as planned, and though they do make it to a military installation at which Rosalie initially agrees to wait for the next train back to civilization, instead Blocker finds himself not only continuing to look after her, but adding an old friend to the mix in the form of a disgraced soldier heading for the gallows named Sgt. Charles Willis (Ben Foster).
Sgt. Willis is an old comrade of Blocker's. A man who has seen just as much death and violence as he has, however, his reaction was an explosion of brutal, untamed violence that resulted in the deaths of an entire native family at the end of a hatchet. Willis is the yin to Sgt. Metz's yang, a very important distinction that plays a huge part in determining the direction of Blocker, Yellow Hawk, Rosalie, and the entire party.
Cooper's characters and their choices in Hostiles are incredibly complex and interdependent on one another. When you're more or less stranded in the wild west with few people upon whom you can depend, it's natural that the bonds formed are deep. While Sgt. Blocker has spent decades honing his hatred of the savage native peoples of the west to a fine point, there comes a moment where he must reevaluate his position, and it comes in the form of a mirror.
Scott Cooper writes Metz and Cooper as two different sides of Sgt. Blocker, the light and the dark. The two characters act as mirrors of his own experiences and behaviors in a way that allows Bale to essentially act against himself. In Metz, Blocker can empathize with the weariness of a man for whom the violence must eventually end, a man who has begun to see the endless violence for what it truly is, utterly pointless. While Willis represents the version of Blocker for whom the experience has completely consumed him, a man who has absorbed the violence done by and to him and who has made himself violence incarnate.
This dichotomous relationship built by Cooper's skillful writing allows the viewer to begin to understand the tumult within Sgt. Blocker, a man for whom we have no sympathy for a good chunk of the film. However, when he gets the opportunity to weigh his life, his decisions, and his path forward by watching the consequences that a similar experience has wrought upon two people who he understands, it changes him in a way that the audience can understand completely.
Hostiles is a fascinating and complex exploration of the evolution of the overall morality of the old west. There are a few overt references to more modern sounding ethical opinions on the treatment of the "natives" sprinkled throughout the film, but to be honest, they kind of feel forced, even if they may have been period accurate. The real change comes through watching Bale's performance and ever-changing subtle perspective on his situation. Wes Studi isn't given much to do - after all, his character is on death's door - but he makes the most of his screen time even if it is largely filled with platitudes and metaphors.
The real hero of Hostiles, in spite of the fact that Bale acts his ass off, is Scott Cooper's script. The writing in this film is tremendous, and I'm sorry to say that I don't know how much of that stems from the original story by Donald E. Stewart. However, Stewart's story and Cooper's screenwriting make this film, which borders to overstaying its welcome at 135 minutes, well worth the journey. Hostiles was one of the most satisfying films of last year, it makes me wish all movies were written with such care. Scott Cooper has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with after Crazy Heart and this film, I cannot wait to see what else he has up his sleeve.