I see a movie like Hostiles and I immediately want to know what Native Americans think of it. Westerns, as arguably the biggest contributor to American mythology in the twentieth century, have evolved a great deal over the decades. It's not so easy now just to make a movie about cowboy heroes who defeat Indian villains. Neither fit into such neat categories, and Hostiles is clearly being very deliberate about that.
Unlike, say, Wind River, though, the iMDB.com page for Hostiles has no discussion about Native American community involvement or response to the project. On the other hand, here's a take from Indian Country Today: "A Profound Respect for Native Culture, A Gut Punch of Reality." Having woefully little working knowledge of said culture beyond what I've seen in movies that historically treated Native Americans with little to no respect, I guess there's some comfort in at least one voice with far more authority than mine on the subject being pleased with the film, or at least its portrayals. And it's always good to know the Native American characters -- of which there are several here -- are played by actual Native American actors.
And, indeed, rare has a Western been this complexly layered since Unforgiven, although, truth be told, this film is nowhere near as solid as that, at least in terms of story arc. Much has been made among critics of the brutality giving way to redemption in this film, but I'm not so convinced Hostiles truly earns the redemption it gives its Native-hating lead character (played flawlessly by Christian Bale).
In terms of the brutality, the story is pretty horrifying from the start: we see a group of horse-stealing Native Americans massacre an entire family, failing to catch only the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), leaving her widowed and childless, all three of her children -- one of them a baby -- shot and killed. Next we move to a fort in New Mexico where we meet a soldier named Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Bale), and we learn right quick that he has a long history of slaughtering Native Americans -- men, women, children, you name it. He has as much contempt for Native Americans as any man has had in American cinema, or so it would seem at first.
And here is where things get complicated, not just in terms of plot, but in terms of how well Hostiles works as a story. The script was based on a manuscript found by the widow of Donald E. Stewart, who wrote Clear and Present Danger, Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October -- and who died in 1999. Perhaps some more polishing of the script, which is decent but not great, could have been in order. As it exists onscreen, it has Joseph tasked with escorting an elderly Native American prisoner (Wes Studi) who has been held for seven years, back to his home in Montana to die of the cancer he is afflicted with. And over time they bond, as they face an array of common enemies along the way. For a man who is supposed to have such a deep and abiding, lethal contempt for his kind, it could easily be argued that the quickness of this bond is a bit beyond belief.
In a way, Hostiles is a road movie, just with people on horses -- and with people left alive steadily dwindling over the course of the story. Supporting cast here includes Ben Foster as another criminal pawned off on Blocker to be escorted to another town; and assisting officers played by Jesse Plemons and Timothée Chalomet. I was rather surprised to see Chalomet in his small role -- that guy is everywhere this year, this making three movies he's in playing in theatres concurrently (the others being Lady Bird and his multiple-award-nominated starring turn in Call Me By Your Name).
Ultimately, the plot pieces in Hostiles fit together a bit too neatly, making it slightly too Hollywood-convenient for its own good. That said, the characters themselves, and how their relationships with each other are portrayed, are uniformly compelling, the actors each elevating the otherwise contrived material with their superior skill and talent. Hostiles is no masterpiece, but it's certainly worth experiencing, both for its interpersonal tensions as well as its sociopolitical underpinnings.
Speaking of which -- a quick note on its language. It's relatively well known that plenty of Native Americans are fine with, and even prefer, "Indian." I don't recall the word "Indian" once being used in this script, which is a bit of odd revisionist history. Certainly people in the 1892 American West would have used that word rather than "Natives," which is what the characters here use. It feels a little like deliberate and perhaps misguided political correctness. Also: there is one black character (played by a capable Jonathan Majors), as one of the soldiers assisting Blocker, and in this movie, not only is his race never an issue with anyone, it's never even directly addressed. For 1892 America, that seems odd at best, and makes the character feel slightly like tokenism. In this world, apparently, racial tensions only exist between "The Natives," and everyone else. We all know that was not the case.
So: Hostile is in many ways, maybe most of them relatively subtle, problematic. It still works as a film, and particularly as a Western. It's compelling from beginning to end and is ripe for discussion.