Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Mr. Burns: Oh no, the Pawnee have returned. They probably want their souls back.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Army captain embarks on mission escorting former enemy through dangerous territory. His imminent retirement should have no bearing on subsequent events.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 3.5 George Hansons out of 5.
Tagline: “No peace without sacrifice.”
Better Tagline: “Crimes were committed on both sides.”
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: In 1892 New Mexico, the Indian Wars have more or less ended, with the majority of Native American combatants killed or imprisoned. Some, like Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) have fallen prey to terminal illness. Acceding to a Presidential request to take him back home, the Army assigns Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) to lead the expedition. Blocker — a retiring veteran who’s been in so long he’s “stopped counting” the years — agrees, but isn’t happy about it. Along the way, the group will encounter the lone survivor of a Comanche raid (Rosamund Pike), an Army deserter (Ben Foster), and enemies galore.
"Critical" Analysis: “It ought not to be this way.”
Those words, spoken early on in Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, could theoretically address a broad range of topics in American history (or America's current state, for that matter). But in 1892, it speaks to a fledgling sentiment within the U.S. that maybe this Manifest Destiny thing, with its attendant extermination, abuse, and imprisonment of Native Americans, wasn't such a hot idea after all.
Granted, this isn’t the case Cooper appears to be making in the beginning, when a Comanche raiding party attacks the New Mexico homestead of the Quaid family, killing the father and three kids while wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) manages to escape. It’s a brutal and matter-of-fact affair that practically demands an Ethan Edwards style response.
Enter Captain Joe Blocker. He harbors few doubts about his mission and despises the indigenous peoples of the frontier for killing so many of his former comrades. And while it’s repeatedly pointed out to him that his own past actions aren’t anything to be proud of, the status quo is one Blocker has made his peace with. Never mind that long years on the frontier have come close to driving others, like his friend Metz (Rory Cochrane), insane.
Unfortunately for Blocker, his Indian fighting experience makes him the perfect candidate to lead a unit escorting Yellow Hawk and his family to Montana so the dying chief can live out his remaining days in freedom. Ever the dutiful soldier, Blocker agrees...and then orders the family shackled as soon as they're out of sight of his superiors. The expedition soon comes upon the ruins of the Quaid homestead, finding an unhinged Rosalie (Pike) hiding within and insisting her murdered children are just sleeping. Blocker eventually convinces her to join them, knowing the Comanche are still in the area.
Hostiles, whatever it's other flaws, is a beautiful film. Cooper leverages the (for now) still-pristine landscapes of Montana and New Mexico, all bolstered by Bale's stoicism and Pike, whose portrayal of Rosalie is a rare (for the genre) study in post-traumatic stress.
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Still, it can hardly be called a “reinvention” of the Western, if indeed such a thing is even possible. Over 100 years since the genre first appeared, we’ve already seen acknowledgement of the time period's nasty and brutish nature, and the reevaluation of the cinematic Indian "savage" myth has been around for decades. You could add zombies or dinosaurs or UFOs, but that too has been done, with varying degrees of success. And that’s fine, because reinvention doesn’t appear to be Cooper’s objective.
Any moral ambiguity is (rather clumsily) rendered overt when the detail takes on a deserter (Ben Foster) with past ties to Blocker, and redemption becomes the overriding narrative.There's a conversation between recent West Point grad Kidder (Jesse Plemons) and Metz about the nature of killing that could have been lifted straight from Unforgiven, while Blocker's own about-face from "Kill 'em all" to "Hey, you redskins aren't so bad" takes place with relative swiftness for a guy who's spent his entire life systematically eradicating them.
Is there a climactic battle? Well, yes, but it's not against anyone Blocker or company has a history with. Because as Cooper telegraphs throughout, there is no ultimate Big Bad. In the end, Hostiles (and life itself) comes down to how a person confronts the horrors they’ve inflicted (Blocker) or endured (pretty much everyone else), whether they want to or not.
*see also The Homesman, The Outlaw Josey Wales