'Hostiles' can’t act on its own inclusive message

Well-meaning but misguided western adopts dated tropes


“Hostiles” stars Christian Bale embodies romanticized virility as the strong, silent Joseph Blocker — a racially intolerant captain.

Courtesy Entertainment Studios

While their ubiquity has certainly declined over the years in favor of the perpetual output of sequels and superhero blockbusters, the western still stands as the quintessential genre of American film. For over a century, westerns have been an infectious pleasure to watch — think of the exhilarating horseback action sequences, the infinite possibilities evoked by the early days of the American frontier, the triumphing of good over evil, a towering John Wayne walking with his trademark, slightly off-balanced swagger. 

The most successful westerns transcend these escapist components to critique the American Dream and address the country’s shameful history, with the mass genocide of Native Americans often front and center. However, even these films usually fail to offer a nuanced account of the country’s founding contradictions — the vast majority of westerns decidedly equip themselves with a reductive humanism and a white, heterosexual male point of view. 

Recently though, a number of westerns like “Django Unchained,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “True Grit” have forefronted non-whiteness, non-heterosexuality and non-maleness and, in turn, offered necessary and previously unseen representation to the genre. Scott Cooper’s ambitious new film “Hostiles” — which was shown Saturday during the Virginia Film Festival — admirably attempts to continue this progressive trend in the western genre. However, the film ultimately fails to deliver its inclusive message through a series of misguided tropes and singular white perspective.

“Hostiles” stars Christian Bale, who yet again embodies romanticized virility as the strong, silent Joseph Blocker — a racially intolerant captain forced to escort Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his birthplace in Montana. A small group of soldiers and Yellow Hawk’s family join them, as well as Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), whose husband, two young girls and newborn are mercilessly slaughtered in the film’s brutal opening sequence. In typical western fashion, the film begins with this unflinching eruption of violence, but soon adopts a steady slow-burning pace, with an imposing sense of dread and potential of carnage looming over every scene.

Despite the film’s ensemble cast, Blocker is the only character granted agency and a fully-realized personality. His lifetime of ruthless battlefield experiences has coalesced into a hatred for the Cheyenne, which extends through the first third of “Hostiles.” When Blocker first approaches Yellow Hawk in his prison cell, Blocker mutters, “I know how you are,” with a biting disdain. Later on, Blocker is so wary of Yellow Hawk that he doesn’t even grant him the right to move freely, insisting on keeping him in chains. 

These instances illuminate not only Blocker’s power and agency, but more importantly his blind hatred, which gradually alleviates as he gets to know Yellow Hawk and his loved ones throughout the arduous journey. The film showcases how empathy, awareness and listening can overcome racist outlooks, and Blocker’s self-redemptive arc from a bigot to an understanding man isn’t necessarily vexing or troublesome — a film advocating for progressivism and tolerance should always be encouraged.

However, it is the means through which Blocker achieves his “enlightenment” that makes the underlying inclusive message of “Hostiles” contradictory, if not totally pernicious. In its strive for progressivism, the film relies on regressive, one-dimensional archetypes of Native Americans. When the film isn’t portraying these characters as grandiose and ruthless savages, it turns to the dreadful “noble savage” stereotype ubiquitous in westerns. 

The “noble savage” trope becomes predominantly employed in the characterizations of Yellow Hawk and his family. They are altruistic, wise and stoic, and their primary purpose in the film is to abstractly move the plot along or comfort and enlighten the white leads. They advance the character development of Blocker and Rosalie, but lack any depth in their own right. The overt employing of offensive, dated tropes, a singular white perspective and the power imbalance between Blocker and Yellow Hawk — as well as the white savior narrative evoked in the film’s ending — ultimately negates the fim’s well-meaning intentions.

With all its faults, “Hostiles” remains a spectacle to be seen. The Old West has never looked so glorious — the use of elegantly framed wide shots of magnificent, dusty plains starkly contrasts to the film’s equally striking violent sequences. The aforementioned opening scene is particularly well-choreographed, jarring and merciless. It concludes Rosalie tightly grasping her baby’s corpse as blood oozes all over its blanket, one of the most breathtaking, upsetting film images in recent memory. The lack of restraint shown in the film’s brutality becomes all the more heightened by the film’s unhurried pace, which is admirable considering today’s films’ insistence on constant bombast.

“Hostiles” is a deeply flawed film with plenty to love, from its photography to Pike’s fabulous performance to Max Richter’s tense yet restrained score. However, its reliance on harmful tropes and the dominant perspective of the once deplorable Blocker renders its attempts to add a fresh, inclusive take to the western genre futile.

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