Adventure Drama

'Hostiles' Film Review: Beautifully crafted, but crucially flawed

January 19, 2018Ferdosa Abdi

Hostiles is beautifully constructed film, but it is shallow. A frustrating example of how Native Americans still lack a voice in their own stories, this American Western drama follows a U.S. Cavalry officer who is tasked with a suicide mission to escort a Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their land in Montana in 1892. Needless to say, the journey is treacherous, with many enemies all around them.

Writer/Director Scott Cooper sets out to tell a story about the journeys people have to go through to simply survive, keep order or find their place in this world. This is also a movie about acknowledging what side of history you will stand on, and learning that your enemies may, in fact, be your victims. At the heart of it, this is the story Cooper wants to tell. He wants to acknowledge that America was built on the suffering, exploitation and murder of Natives. However, Cooper undercuts a noble pursuit by minimizing the important role the Native characters and actors play in this story.

The film is set up to showcase the two sides of American history through the eyes of Capt. Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) and Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), two characters who perceive each other as enemies and who have done horrible things for their causes. A determined and loyal patriot, Joe starts the movie with a very fixed view of the Natives; he has witnessed some of the horrors enacted by them, and it his hatred of the Natives that has blinded him to that fact that he is no better. Over the course of the story, however, Joe undergoes an evolution of sorts and realizes that perhaps it's not the Natives who are the enemy, but rather his own people.

The problem is that to properly depict Joe's change of heart, you need to show the other side. But unfortunately, this is something that is sorely missing from the film. The lack of perspective given to Yellow Hawk and his family (Adam Beach, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty and Xavier Horsechief) illustrates that although Natives will forever represent America's greatest shame, Native people still lack a voice in their own stories. Joe and Yellow Hawk are both on a journey, but Joe is the only one given the benefit of growth and a perspective. Luckily, Studi is a brilliant actor and he is able to effectively convey the emotions and thoughts to illustrate his character's state of mind.

Hostiles is expertly crafted, with fine performances from everyone in the cast, including Rosamund Pike, Timothée Chalamet, Rory Cochrane and Ben Foster. Every shot takes your breath away. The music and cinematography will move you to tears. The costumes and set design are perfectly detailed to recreate the feeling of the time period. But the imbalanced storytelling makes the whole endeavor a waste. By the end of it all, you will feel half-satisfied or angered, because while it is clear that it is the colonizers who are the aggressors, it is still they who are given the benefit of perspective and character growth.

Another aspect of the movie that Cooper fails to explore concerns a black Buffalo soldier named Henry Woodson. Jonathan Majors portrays a character whose presence and position in relation to the Natives is interesting, as he represents another horrific chapter in American history. Yet, Henry is merely one of the officers to place Yellow Hawk and his family in chains. To have a character in the film whose own people were once enslaved and who now finds himself an oppressor of the Natives and not even attempt to follow through on it feels symbolic of the filmmakers' inability to see that the real story is buried under two hours of — for lack of a better term — "white guilt."

To say that one should dismiss Hostiles altogether would be foolish. That said, it is still important to realize that what audiences are getting here is a very one-sided version of history. Sadly, this is no different than the many Westerns produced by Hollywood. But at the very least Cooper does make the point very clear, and to his credit, this is certainly a movie that will start a conversation.

Hostiles releases January 19th, 2018 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong violence, and language. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 13 min.

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