Hostiles begins as many past Westerns have – with an attack. Conducted with brutal detachment, we witness a native tribe murder a white family in 1892 America and burn down a settlement before leaving it to dust. A lone woman is left without the life she had previously, cut from roots and overwhelmed by the prospect of building anything from the nothing she has left.
What we’re less prepared for is a reflection on the limitations of that portrayal. We’re accustomed to seeing the stories of devastated white survivors in the American West, often reinforced to convey the relevant cultural message by a select few over the years. As a result, barely any time is ever spent showing how the Native American tribes were seeing their lives brutally devastated at the same time.
Directed and written by Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart), Hostiles challenges our perception by pairing the opening scene with another parallel attack, this time of U.S. soldiers capturing a native family. The panic among the victims is the same but the scene is edited to be quick and detached, highlighting the unfair habits of the storytellers that have shaped the genre.
As the film progresses, Hostiles continues to make us question the viewpoint we’ve accustomed to, refusing the racially-charged ‘Old West’ narratives of good vs evil and instead focusing on the cyclical violence that gripped a torn country. Characters tear and clutch at the earth beneath with their hands, a symbol of the root of all this fighting, as well as the forever home of their allies and enemies who died fighting to claim it. In the end, no one wins, aside from the small number with the most power to destroy.
This idea of the commonality extends to our trinity of lead characters. Joe, a weathered U.S. soldier played by Christian Bale, exists within a moral code that takes some prisoner and assigns others as the executioner – all whilst sharing the same crimes. Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is renowned as a tough warrior to his foes but he’s also someone with his own motives and tribe to protect. Like the soldiers that he faces, he’s fighting for what he knows – and in his case, trying to save.
Finally, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the woman from our opening scene, is also dealing with her own trauma and fury. As with the abandoning of old genre tropes, Cooper tackles the difficult topic of women and violence in a way that stands out from conventions. Where other films have lingered on gender violence with dubious motives, Rosalie instead becomes the observer of the three. In one standout scene, she watches the soldiers run into tents and waits terrified to see who comes out from the unseen skirmishes inside. She suffers throughout the film but the atrocities against her aren’t leered at. Instead, the film focuses on her survival.
Although Hostiles is a film packed with ideas that offers plenty to consider, there are a few slip-ups from a more technical point of view. An epilogue that attempts to tie up loose ends isn’t needed when a perfect full stop is provided in one heart-stopping scene five minutes earlier. Some inconsistencies with accents and equine actors also doesn’t go unmissed, and it will disappoint those looking for a non-stop Western shoot-out.
That said, for audiences looking for something slow and thoughtful in the barren land of January cinema releases, Hostiles is a worthwhile new approach to classic genre conventions. If anything, it will make you keenly analyse the old Westerns that have formed modern expectations and bias. That can only be a good thing.