"Hostiles" fails to read the room
The Western as it is widely known fell out of style long ago with mainstream audiences. In its place much more recently came something much sleeker, sexier, and more violent. “3:10 to Yuma” represents the best of its kind: a Western that doesn’t shy away from the violence that was shown far too softly during John Wayne’s era.
Most of these films take care to showcase the real-life locations they’re shot on. There are no sound stages to be found; there’s no studio old west town build in Universal City, either. No breath of fresh air lasts longer than an exhale. “Hostiles” doesn’t seek to find new ground so much as plod through the mud. It does so with, it seems, honest intentions, but consequences all the same.
A film about the toxic and tragic cycle of dangerous masculinity would be a tired exercise, but a forgivable offense. That’s especially true with an actor as capable as Christian Bale front and center. What’s not forgivable is a film that seeks to assuage the guilt of white men for more than two hours, particularly while doing so in such a pathetic, miserable fashion.
Bale, as a particularly vengeful, racist Captain on the verge of retirement, is tasked with escorting Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his home across treacherous terrain. The two are former enemies on the battlefield, and Bale is not ready to let old feelings die. Studi, for his part, doesn’t seem troubled by the past. Frankly, neither does anyone else. Bale is the only one who can’t move on.
White characters, including those in Bale’s troupe, give the audience reason to breathe easy. Remember, not all white people supported the mistreatment of Native Americans, “Hostiles” assures us. Whether that holds up in the court of history is another matter entirely, but the film’s insistence to “gotta hear both sides” is its fatal flaw. It opens with a group of Native Americans brutally murdering an innocent family. It follows with some soldiers bullying, then taking a Native family prisoner. Even while trying to play things evenly, the film fails.
Throughout the long journey, need I remind you this film runs more than two hours, the fine cast of Native American actors do not speak a single word to one another. That is, not a word that does not directly involve one of the white actors. These characters have no on-screen lives except as emotional baggage for Bale. What little dialogue they have with him is rote, and plot-based, making his redemption arc unearned as true emotional heft is replaced by hewn corpses.
That’s a common problem in the modern Western. Directors focused on wailing women (Rosamund Pike is totally wasted in her role), tormented men, buried bodies and bleak vistas forget there’s a story to be told. The themes at play in “Hostiles” may be interesting in a vacuum, but it’s impossible to tell such a story without considering the historical context. Well, it’s possible, but the result is what you see on the screen.
Instead of another “Hostiles” or “Slow West” — hell, instead of another “3:10 to Yuma,” it would be breathtakingly refreshing to see a Western with modern sensibilities with a Native cast, a Native director and a Native story. One that doesn’t tell things through the lens of a white person. “Hostiles” attempts to assuage white guilt, which feels oddly akin to a scene where a white character begins Studi for mercy by offering him a piece of tobacco.
Likewise, turning over the camera to Native filmmakers won’t right centuries of wrongs committed by white Americans. It won’t even scratch the surface. But films where Native filmmakers are not given a voice at all are an insult to talented artists who deserve better.