“When we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners.”
In Scott Cooper’s new western Hostiles, the cowboy-and-Indian genre is used to consider the power that prejudices hold over us. But it also gives a glimpse of the possibility of reconciliation that can overcome even lifelong animosities.
Cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is a former war hero. He now spends his day chasing down renegade bands of Comanches and bringing them to jail. He’s due to retire, but instead he is assigned a public relations mission—to escort a dying Comanche chief to his ancestral lands in Montana. Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for decades. Now dying of cancer, he is granted permission from the President to return to Montana with his family (who will again be imprisoned after his death).
Blocker wants nothing to do with this. Yellow Hawk has killed many of his friends through the years. But when threatened with a court-martial and loss of his pension, he reluctantly agrees. Blocker and a small detachment set out on the journey that will be a bit like The Odyssey with various trials and dangers on the way.
Soon after they leave, they come across a homestead that has recently been attacked by a band of Comanches. Only the wife/mother, Rosalee Quinn (Rosamund Pike), survived the attack. She is near catatonic watching over her “sleeping” children. Blocker brings her along on the way to the next fort. The women of Yellow Hawk’s family share their clothes with Rosalee, the first act of compassion by either side. As the journey progresses there will be much that gives those on each side insight into the life of the others.
The most obvious theme of the film is the way racism and prejudice have been central in our national understanding. The attitudes with which Blocker and his cohort, and Yellow Hawk and his family view each other is not really as persons but rather as stereotypes. It is only as they slowly see each other’s strengths and weaknesses that they begin to see the common humanity. But even with racism so front and center, the film also subverts our ideas. One of Blocker’s party is African-American, a buffalo soldier with whom Blocker has served for some time.
But there are also deeper conversations to be drawn from the film. This is a story that is permeated with death. Yellow Hawk is dying. Rosalee’s family is already dead. Death can come upon them in many forms at any moment. The soldiers (as well as Yellow Hawk and his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach)) are all trained in killing. Death is seen as loss, as tragedy, as inevitable, as fulfillment, as an escape, and as punishment at various points of the film. Killing may happen as a necessity, as desperation, or as an act of anger and revenge.
As we study the various characters in the film, we may well see signs of what is now recognized as Post Traumatic Stress and Moral Injury. After an early encounter, a young Lieutenant (Jesse Plemons) is disturbed because this was his first time to kill a man. Master Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane) tells him that after enough killing, you don’t feel anything. The lieutenant responds, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” MSgt Metz and Blocker, both long time Cavalry soldiers exhibit signs of “melancholia”—they are weary of all the killing and of all the men that they have lost.
The paradox of the film is that it simultaneously is a journey from life to death and a journey from death to life. Yellow Hawk grows more ill as the journey progresses. There are various deaths along the way from a variety of reasons. Few of those who set out will make it to the end. But there is also movement in the other direction. Those who are dead on the inside find a chance for new life if they are willing to seek it. It is this hope that makes Hostiles more than just a rehash of the exploitive history of the American West. It allows the story to reflect the conflicts that continue to fill our culture and if we will choose to see them as journeys of death or towards life and fullness.
Photos courtesy Yellow Hawk, Inc.