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While the western used to be a staple of the cinema, in more recent decades the genre has faded, in no small part because nobody seems quite sure how to make a modern western. The simple days of cowboys vs Indians are long gone. We understand the characterization of the heroic cowboys and the savage native Americans was wrong, while also being paper thin one-dimensional storytelling. However, Hollywood has had a hard time figuring out what to do with the western since then.
Enter Hostiles, a new Western starring Christian Bale as an American army Captain in post-Civil War New Mexico who is ordered to escort a dying Native American chief to his homeland in Montana. Chief Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer and isn't a threat to anybody anymore, but that hardly matters to Bale's Captain Joseph Blocker, who fought in his share of battles with Native Americans and has seen his share of friends killed, not just by natives generally, but this chief specifically. Bale hates Yellow Hawk and nearly chooses court martial over doing his job, though he eventually relents. Along the way to Montana, the caravan picks up Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) a frontierswoman who recently lost her entire family to violent Comanches, who are still at large.
However, that is only one of the obstacles the group needs to overcome on their journey. Hostiles feels less like a single movie and more like multiple episodes of a cable television series that have been strung together. One problem is overcome, then the next rears its head. Some supporting characters rotate out, others take their place. It's unlikely you'll remember most of their names, as Hostiles doesn't even try to make them fleshed out characters.
A couple of minor exceptions to this are Rory Cochrane as "Metz" a longtime friend of Bale's character. While there's a bit more to him, it feels like there was a subplot there that got left on the cutting room floor. Also, Ben Foster appears in the middle of the film, seemingly to explain Hostiles' themes, that the white soldiers are no better than the natives they call savages, on the off chance anybody in the theater hasn't figured it out yet.
The focus is on Christian Bale and, to a lesser extent, Rosamund Pike. Bale is gruff and serious and while his voice isn't quite down in the Batman register, it's not far off. He speaks in short sentences that get his point across and little else. He's clearly a man who has learned to guard his emotions, the problem is, that since he never lets any of the characters in very far, the audience is also left separated, never really understanding what Joesph Blocker is thinking or feeling.
On the opposite side of the coin is Rosamund Pike. Hostiles opens with an introduction to her that will likely be the most remembered thing in the film, in which Pike's character suffers through a terribly violent experience. The scene is engaging in its horror and it sets the tone for her character, understandably shaken for what she's been through. It's unfortunate that the scene didn't set the same tone for the film as a whole. Instead, it opens with a high point that then fails to live up to. As the only character whose emotions really come through on screen, Pike is high point in an otherwise dreary affair.
While the journey that Hostiles takes you on is a bit slow, one can't say it's not pretty. The sweeping frontier vistas are lovely and they do more than any character in making you feel like you're part of the world the film is trying to create.
Hostiles isn't a Dances with Wolves white savior story, it's a little better than that, but only just. The Native American characters are barely characters. They exist primarily as a plot device to help Christian Bale on his road to redemption. The violent Comanche are there to show that the Native Americans were violent too, while Yellow Hawk and his family show that they can also be good. The soldiers are our heroes with (mostly) good intentions, but there are plenty of other "evil" white people to balance the scale. The problem, of course, is that things aren't that black and white.The issue of western expansion is a complex and nuanced one, but Hostiles only paints in broad strokes.
Hostiles wants to be a new generation of western, something beyond John Wayne and Kevin Costner, and while its intentions are clear, it fails to successfully navigate this difficult subject matter. Perhaps, eventually, we'll figure out how to make the western work for the modern day, but we're clearly not there yet.