Hostiles ★★★


Like all the director’s features, Scott Cooper’s bleak, slow-burn Western 'Hostiles' manages to eke out rough success, despite the familiarity of its story components. Cooper’s works are consistently constructed according to durable, masculine formulae: the artist-cum-addict character study of 'Crazy Heart' (2009); the small-town revenge tale of 'Out of the Furnace' (2013); and the G-men-and-gangsters crime drama of 'Black Mass' (2015). 'Hostiles' is the director’s take on the hard-bitten Western, complete with an arduous cross-territory odyssey and plenty of late-19th-century rumination on the End of the Frontier. Based on an unproduced manuscript from the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart ('Missing'; 'The Hunt for Red October'), Cooper’s film positions itself as a corrective to the genre’s historical demonization of Native Americans and its glorification of the U.S. Cavalry. In this, 'Hostile's is hampered by the neglect it exhibits towards its Native characters and by a moral arc for its white protagonist that feels distractingly implausible. On balance, however, the film is still a solid work of revisionist mythmaking, as somber in its overall tone as it is brutal in its depiction of frontier violence.

The film’s opening depicts a scene of white terror that echoes 'The Searchers' (1956), although Cooper renders with ghastly explicitness the bloodshed that John Ford kept discreetly offscreen. In 1892, a rampaging band of Comanches descend on the remote New Mexico homestead of the Quaid family, ostensibly to steal horses, although the raiders proceed to pitilessly slaughter everyone in sight. Only Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, superb as usual) manages to evade the attackers by hiding in the scrubby forest, where she maniacally clutches her limp infant child — dead from a rifle shot to the head. It’s a grim, shocking prelude, to be sure, one that is pointedly consistent with the white settler's perception of Native Americans as murderous, marauding devils.

The whooping, war-paint-smeared Comanche raiders are so blatantly designed to play on hoary Western stereotypes that the opening almost feels like a provocation aimed at contemporary, liberal-minded viewers. However, Cooper quickly disrupts the disconcerting racial overtones by flipping the equation in the following scene. In this sequence, sadistic U.S. Cavalry Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and his men run down a fleeing Apache family, children included, as though the Natives were nothing more than rabid animals. Blocker believes himself to be a warden of American civilization — he pointedly reads Julius Caesar’s 'The Conquest of Gaul' (in Latin!) — but his motivations are plainly racist and personal. The men under his command who perished during the various Indian Wars weigh heavily on him, as do the gruesome Native-perpetrated atrocities he allegedly witnessed. This contrasts with the deaths of the Native Americans themselves, whom Blocker and fellow soldiers such as Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors) admit to shooting, gutting, and scalping with enthusiasm. Woodson, incidentally, is a Buffalo Soldier — an enlisted black cavalryman — and the intense, brotherly affection that he and Blocker share is but one example of 'Hostiles'’ sensitivity to the complex, personal idiosyncrasies of racism....

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