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Review: “Hostiles” tries to revise history and Western film traditions

“Hostiles” is a weak attempt at rewriting the questionable politics and stereotypes of earlier Westerns.

“Hostiles” opens with a symbol of Western movies — a prairie home nestled between rocky ridges, horses milling about in a corral and a picturesque American family.

Within minutes, the house burns to the ground. In this moment, “Hostiles” begins its attempt to do the same to the tired conventions of the Western genre, but the match never quite strikes. 

Directed by Scott Cooper, “Hostiles” follows Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), as he leads Cheyenne chief and U.S. prisoner Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana. Along the way, Blocker encounters Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), stranded in her burnt house and mourning the murder of her entire family. During this journey to Montana, the dwindling group of travelers face their individual biases and gruesome personal histories.

“Hostiles” delivers sweeping landscape montages like any good Western should; we see the expansive, endless sky, jagged cliffs and rolling plains. The desolation of this natural world plays well in the background, highlighting the messiness of the drama on screen.

Despite the beauty of the natural landscape, “Hostiles” is unflinchingly violent. There are brawls and shootings and stabbings and scalpings, and these painful moments remind us of the violence of the West, or at least the movies that pay tribute to it. 

The performances in “Hostiles” are fine. Rosamund Pike of “Gone Girl” encapsulates the isolation of the desolate Western life the movie portrays. Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me by Your Name” and “Lady Bird”) and Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad” and “Black Mirror”) play members of Blocker’s party, though their roles are relatively small and forgettable. Bale’s portrayal of an army captain with a violent past is both shallow and heavy handed; in one montage, he shouts at the sky in anguish, a sequence that drags on just a little too long. In other words, it would be easier and more enjoyable to seek out these actors in better movies. 

But “Hostiles” doesn’t suffer at the hands of its actors; it instead falters in its pace and politics. The cinematography is beautiful, but the film’s use of endless landscape montages causes the film to drag. 

Blocker’s personal development and atonement intermingles with the film’s desire to revise the messy politics of a traditional Western film. In an attempt to rewrite the stereotypes and whitewashing of earlier Westerns, “Hostiles” centers its narrative arc around Blocker’s hatred of Native Americans and his ability to move toward acceptance. 

The resolution to this conflict? Yellow Hawk and his family are rarely placed at the forefront of the screen. The history of American settlement in the West is rarely mentioned in the film, and this forgotten detail is only heightened by the film’s focus on violence as a unifying element. 

Because Blocker, his crew and Yellow Hawk have all seen gruesome, unspeakable violence during their time, they can’t be that different, “Hostiles” claims. This form of equality, however, does little to address the history of the American West.

Rooting its conflicts in personal redemptions could have grounded the larger history of the Western genre, giving the film’s politics a specific, individual angle. Instead, Blocker is hollow and unlikeable, and his unyielding hatred of Native Americans, though historically accurate, is difficult to hear in 2018. 

Revisionist Westerns aren’t unheard of, but most are better than this one, with its minimal character development and sluggish pace. This hero’s journey is not one that redeems, but instead, one that frustrates. Blocker’s atonement happens at the cost of the unexplored indigenous stories onscreen, and the result is an empty jab at the Western genre.

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