Hostiles challenges the classic image of heroic cowboys riding off into the sunset

Friday 12th, January 2018 / 18:44
By Pat Mullen

“Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I am weak,” says Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) in Hostiles. “We’ll never get used to the Lord’s rough ways.”

Rosalie opens up to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) towards the end of Hostiles, a visionary and meditative western from director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart). The pair pauses following a journey plagued by violence, bloodshed, and death. Rosalie’s reflection on America’s violent ways anticipates the blood-soaked finale of Hostiles that features a body count so high it’s rivalled only by Hamlet. Her speech crucially asks the audience to consider the perceived heroics in the action to come.

These thoughts on the finality of death challenge the classic image of heroic cowboys riding off into the sunset after battle. The Hollywood genre tied to colonial mythmaking has a sorry history when it comes to representing relationships between Indigenous persons and settlers. Stories of rugged white heroes defending the lands from bloodthirsty “savages,” who rarely get any speaking lines, built the Dream Factory of Hollywood by recycling westerns that depicted an untamed frontier ready for tough but happy times.

Hostiles does away with romantic notions of heroism with Bale’s excellent turn as Joseph, a racist leader of the cavalry who receives an ironic assignment for a man who proudly slaughtered the Indigenous persons of the land. His mission is to oversee the safe return of terminally ill Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) back home so that he can die peacefully in Cheyenne territory. Accompanied by the Chief’s family, played by Q’orianka Kilcher and Canada’s Adam Beach, along with a team of cavalry hands played by Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, and Timothée Chalamet, Joseph leads his perceived enemy home to die with dignity.

They encounter ample horrors along the way, most notably Rosalie, whom they find traumatized in the remains of her family home, having lost her husband and three children in a Comanche ambush. Pike gives a ferocious performance as a mother driven wild by grief. She guides the film through its challenging emotional shifts, offering its moral centre while donning a hat and picking up a rifle to ride alongside Joseph.

The journey opens Joseph’s eyes to the root of violence on the frontier. As the company suffers considerable casualties, he learns to see Chief Yellow Hawk as his ally rather than his adversary. The true hostiles are the white men like himself who bred so much violence into the land. The beautiful cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi showcases the vast emptiness of the frontier, favouring elegiac sunsets to note a country blanketed in death.

Hostiles gives its Indigenous characters speaking roles with dialogue in Cheyenne and English, while including folklore and rituals as part of the greater heritage wiped out by colonial genocide, although one wishes the film gave them the same depth and complexity as Joseph and Rosalie. Hostiles takes two steps forward, one step back when it comes to representing Indigenous characters in westerns, and Studi’s commanding and authoritative performance as Chief Yellow Hawk often elevates the film.

The film struggles in its finale that inadvertently writes a white saviour narrative alongside a powerful admission of America’s history of violence. This brutal genre flick isn’t going to sit easily with some audiences, but Hostiles offers a contemplative, if imperfect, Hollywood acknowledgment of the mass bloodshed of Indigenous persons on the frontier.