Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Rory Cochrane, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Timothee Chalamet
A few minutes into Scott Cooper’s Hostiles, in 1892, in the dying years of centuries worth of American Indian warfare, Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is handed his final assignment. Blocker, a loyal officer of the United States Army, is due to retire soon. In the name of duty, he has killed and captured more Native Americans than anyone in his time. Some even believe he enjoys it, as if he were a deflected Quentin Tarantino star.
But only Blocker knows how he feels about his job. Only Blocker has spent his lifetime in the field – enough to form an informed opinion about which side is in the wrong and who the real victims are. “I believe in the Lord, but he’s been blind to what’s going on here for a while,” he later admits, to someone whose soul is as tormented as his.
Yet, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) instructs him to “escort” an ailing native war chief – one that Blocker vehemently resents – and his family back to Montana, a thousand miles South, after years of imprisonment. Blocker knows this is a political move. One day his duty requires him to hate them; another, it demands him to support them. There is no room for principles.
He also knows that if he spends more than a month on horseback with the weakened “enemy,” he may have to confront the deepest corners of his conscience. It might break his steely resolve, at the very end of his decorated career.
In the scene that introduces Blocker, there’s a reason we see him casually biting into a fruit, as his team brutally arrests an escaping Apache family. His men do the dirty work, while he maintains a curious distance. He wears the dehumanized gait of a man tired – and guilty – of his own reputation; if he looks into their eyes, or gets too close, he is afraid he may see the truth. He might even turn into his long-time colleague, Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), a PTSD-afflicted veteran on the brink of breakdown.
When Blocker initially refuses to execute this mission, the Colonel threatens to court-martial him. “There’s nothing left for a lonely ex-captain to do other than wait for his pension checks,” he warns Blocker. In effect, he is trying to prevent Blocker from turning into the quintessential jaded Hollywood hero – a timeworn prototype – like the one Tom Cruise immortalizes in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai. Captain Algren, too, was psychologically crippled by the American Indian Wars. He, too, is approached by a corrupt Colonel, and is ordered to come out of depression, alcoholism and retirement to train the Imperialist Japanese Army – the “official inhabitants” – to fight the skilled Samurai-headed rebellion, Japan’s version of the displaced Indigenous peoples.
Algren eventually sympathizes with the oppressed, switches sides and single-handedly changes the policy of the foreign nation. But Blocker’s journey can’t be as definite; it isn’t destined to be dotted with such lyrical devices of redemption. Hostiles is based in a time – and has released in an era – where the concept of heroism is inwardly, personal and a little more selfish, as opposed to when an individual (or superstar) could selflessly alter the grammar of historical landscapes. Observing a broken man quietly display the will to evolve is, at this moment of living, perhaps as rewarding as watching a troubled protagonist save the world.
Blocker is aware that he is no symbol, and is a tiny, inconsequential part of a land that will heal itself – with or without him. He is aware that if he rejects the Colonel’s orders, he will die a redundant warrior full of regret and pain.
And so he agrees, embarking on a trip whose conclusion we might foresee, but whose ingredients bear the virtue of some exquisitely sensed – and lensed – storytelling. This is a rugged expedition driven as much by Blocker’s overcast desire to meet his reckoning as it is by the masterful collaboration between cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi (Warrior, Spotlight, Silver Linings Playbook), and mood maestro, Max Richter. Their audiovisual control over beats is such that though this might come across as a slow-paced, meditative period drama, there exists a strange undercurrent of suspense – not in a physical “What will happen next?” kind of way, but in a “What will he feel next?” way.
Despite this tailor-made atmosphere, the makers craft an anti-Western of sorts, by refusing to embrace the gun-slinging cliché in favour of a greater – and more private – coming of age. Cooper’s film respects the flawed humanity of its lead protagonist. It repeatedly restrains itself from elevating him into a movie legend that overshadows the sensibilities of his surroundings. This is evident from the fact that Blocker equally shares the intrinsic burden of the narrative – of loss and grief and enlightenment – with a widow named Rosalie Quaid (an evocative Rosamund Pike).
A settler who loses her husband and three children to a murderous band of natives, Quaid is the first person to bring out the compassionate side of Blocker – a side that, I suspect, is trained to surface only with his own kind. She effectively becomes his door to access a corner he has always suppressed. One can sense Blocker spending his nights outside the tents, not worrying about the days that lie ahead, but about Quaid and her ability to be rational about the notion of revenge, about her gentle interactions with his captives, and her maturity to not extend her bias to an entire race. She seems to understand that there are good eggs and there are bad eggs in every group – and that it’s the basket that is usually at fault.
Quaid serves as the “device” designed to silently teach Blocker the meaning of forgiveness, faith and hope; and he is the instrument that allows her to get in touch with these inbuilt attributes. He watches her mourn, and she watches him mourn – till their collective sadness brings them to the kind of resolution only a screenplay can offer. His caution dissolves into a sequence of inevitable losses and goodbyes and fresh graves – as if he were writing his tragic autobiography on a cruise that keeps crashing into undiscovered islands.
It is to Cooper’s credit that we are made to “read” this film just by looking at it. None of anything I’ve written is mentioned in self-explanatory conversations between self-aware characters. Even the roles of the accompanying Native American family – Chief Yellow Hawk, son Black Hawk and the younger ones – aren’t reduced to that of embodying the token-noble-aliens who join human ranks to defeat the evil aliens. There is a tamed mindfulness about them, one that is perhaps derived from seasons of sustained introspection – and one that is primed to reflect on an increasingly vulnerable Blocker.
It always helps to have an actor of Bale’s caliber in the hands of a sure filmmaker. In this Trump anti-era, I can’t imagine why the Academy might have snubbed a performance that can be considered essential to the very fabric of the country. His actions form the roots – the Ground Zero – of the democrat-republican rivalry. Perhaps it could be because Bale’s psyche here is an uncomfortable reminder of the fact that while the liberals are speaking up against their xenophobic President’s hypocritical immigration policies, they are doing so from homes built on a land that was never their own; every American citizen is virtually a “settler” who acknowledges their status not more than once a year, on Thanksgiving.
While we are modernly inclined to compare Blocker to the methodical broodiness of Bruce Wayne (if he were to, say, lose himself to a faraway culture while traveling the world in Batman Begins), Bale lends the Captain a brand of hostility that allows us to empathize with a majority of twenty-first century soldiers who are fighting nameless wars under the misnomer of patriotism. Particularly noteworthy are the two scenes in which Blocker must bid different kinds of farewells to two of his old comrades – in a hospital, and under a tree. Here, too, eye contact is a dangerous thing for him; he chokes up as if expressing oneself were a shame, but keeps going, even as he looks into a blank future.
In two of his previous three films, director (and former actor) Scott Cooper has sought the haunting influence of a weary societal misfit – Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning turn as a stale country musician in Crazy Heart, and Casey Affleck as a crooked ex-war-veteran hustler in the thriller, Out of the Furnace. Yet, Bale’s is an unfamiliar rendition of this familiar cinematic archetype (The Hurt Locker springs to mind) – because he is equipped with the mental space to transform, unregulated by technology, rules and communication. It’s like watching an early version of man respond to the most basic – and oft-forgotten – instincts of identity and singularity.
What Cooper manages to achieve through his simple, uncomplicated storytelling is a remarkable magnification of time. The challenge for most English-language Westerns lies in their capacity to communicate an entire phase of human civilization through a constructed tale of special individuals. However, when Chief Yellow Hawk speaks in his native tongue to Joseph Blocker, there is history in their distrustful gazes. When they shoot at a common adversary, there is history in their compromised union. And when they shake, there is history in their palms. One can feel the weight of a young nation – stuck in transition, subject to contradicting orders of violence and peace by an upper echelon that has never graced a battlefield – on their shoulders.
And even though they aren’t Samurais and Ninjas whose handpicked stories define the course of history, Hostiles delivers to us a portrait of faces whose fates history might have contrived to emulate.