“Hostiles,” directed by Scott Cooper, is a thought-provoking and raw Western that produces a semblance of hope. Instead of glorifying the West, the film presents an accurate and hard-to-stomach depiction of life at the time.
The beginning of “Hostiles” is set in New Mexico in 1892. Army Captain Joseph Blocker, played by Christian Bale, is on the cusp of retirement, but is forced to escort the dying Cheyenne War Chief Yellow Hawk, played by Wes Studi, and his family back to the Valley of the Bears after their imprisonment of seven years ends. Along the way, the group takes in a grieving widow named Rosalie Quaid, portrayed by Rosamund Pike.
The film boasts strong, emotionally compelling performances. Bale’s Captain Blocker makes his resentment for the chief and Native Americans no secret after witnessing his friends die in battles with Native American people.
One of the most compelling aspects of the film is the journey of Blocker confronting his hypocrisy during his time with Studi’s Chief Yellow Hawk. “Hostiles” does not force a happy ending by positing that Blocker is a savior or that his views are justified. Instead, the film deals realistically with the situation, making the focus of the movie not the action but rather the growing relationship between Blocker and Chief Yellow Hawk.
Another moment of interest in “Hostiles” is the relationship between Rosalie Quaid and Chief Yellow Hawk’s family, particularly with his daughter and his grandson, the latter depicted with charming innocence by newcomer Xavier Horsechief. The first scene depicts the death of Quaid’s character’s entire family at the hands of Comanche Native Americans. Such a framework might make one question the film’s portrayal of Native Americans, but the remainder of the film dispels those worries.
Pike’s portrayal of the grieving widow is particularly compelling. While her character is at first apprehensive of Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, her fears begin to subside after Elk Woman, the daughter of Chief Yellow Hawk — played beautifully and delicately by Q’orianka Kilcher — offers her a new dress to replace her bloodstained clothes.
Elk Woman’s kindness leads Pike to question her preconceived notions of Native American peoples, and to find her sense of family and belonging once again. While Rosalie initially screams upon arriving at the makeshift camp, by the end she washes dishes with the women, proclaiming that such work is good enough for her too.
“Hostiles” has been recognized and praised by the National Congress of American Indians for its representation of Native American peoples, including its accurate portrayal of the rare Northern Cheyenne dialect, spoken by Chief Yellow Hawk and Captain Blocker, and the culture, such as gestures and rituals.
According to the NCAI, Cooper asked for the help of Native American filmmakers Chris Eyre and Dr. Joely Proudfit, who run The Native Networkers, a group that seeks to increase Native American representation in the film industry, to make the film as accurate as possible. The inclusion of the native language and customs in “Hostiles” not only adds to the film’s authenticity, but also showcases beauty and depth of Native American culture that is rarely seen in the media.
The pace of “Hostiles” feels deliberately slow, allowing the most poignant moments to shine through. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is breathtaking, with many of the stills and scenes appearing like paintings. The juxtaposition of the landscapes’ brutality with their grandness and beauty also provides the perfect setting for the film’s emotional and heart-wrenching journey.
“Hostiles” is not easy to watch. The way characters talk about Native Americans is often hard to listen to and the imagery can be brutal. However, this rhetoric and imagery needed to be included to accurately depict the racism of the time and to avoid romanticizing the period or its people.
Driven by strong performances and entrancing visuals, “Hostiles” presents a brutal but compelling adaptation of the Western genre.