Scott Cooper's western has come touted in some quarters as "the best western since Unforgiven," as has every promising film in the genre since Unforgiven. Baby steps first: is Hostiles the best western of the 21st century? Better than Meek's Cutoff, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or The Hateful Eight? No, no and no, but I can understand why some might think differently. Hostiles has more of a mainstream sensibility than any of the actual best westerns since Unforgiven, and it has a very strong performance by Christian Bale up front. His, at least, comes closest to living up to the film's formidable epigraph, the famous quote by D.H. Lawrence about the American archetype being "isolate, stoic and a killer." Done up right, Bale looks and carries himself more like a 19th century person than many 21st century actors, though to be fair his moustache helps him greatly. He plays Captain Joe Blocker, tasked at the brink of retirement, and with his pension at stake, with escorting an old enemy, the moribund Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker, goaded by a snarky Harper's Weekly reporter, refuses until threatened by his superiors to have anything to do with the mission, showing an irrational vehemence that marks him as a hardcore Indian hater. But it becomes apparent once the journey is under way that Blocker would simply rather not be reminded in any way of the buddies he lost during the Indian wars. The journey to Montana promises to be a catharsis one way or another.
The party, including Yellow Hawk's family and the usual collection of cavalry types, discovers the remains of a farm that we saw destroyed by renegade Comanches. Inside the farmhouse is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) sole survivor of a massacre that took her husband and three children from her. She freaks out at the sight of more Indians, but as with Blocker, something about the journey softens her feelings toward them, and one can safely predict from a still-early point that the youngest of Yellow Hawk's group will end up her own surrogate child.
Adapting an unfinished treatment by the late Academy Award winner Donald E. Stewart, Cooper as writer-director seems to be saying something about what happens to people taking a journey together. As long as everyone's on the move, everyone finds it easier to get along than anyone might have expected. It helps to have common foes to force them together: first those Comanches, whom Yellow Hand's people also regard as enemies; then a rapey band of fur trappers; then a convicted murderer and former comrade of Blocker's (Ben Foster) who's dumped in the captain's last for a latter leg of the trek. It also helps, in a more contrived way, that despite whatever atrocities Yellow Hawk may have perpetrated in the past -- we're meant to remember that Wes Studi was the bad Indian of modern cinema -- the old chief and his family are nothing but wise and compassionate throughout the trip. You hear not a word of bitterness from them, nor any thought of just desserts when the whites are wounded or killed. Their final obstacle at the end of the trail, after Yellow Hawk becomes one with the Force, is an obnoxious group of whites who refuse to let the old man be buried on land they claim as their own. Not even the presidential safe-conduct pass Blocker carries impresses these yahoos, who clearly give a damn about nothing and no one but their property rights. "Republicans," some in the audience will surely think. But the main idea seems to be that once people put down stakes they have something to fight over, and so just when it seemed that the film had reached its conclusion on a note of reconciliation, it has one more bloodbath left.
Cooper has an odd attitude toward violence. The opening massacre scene pulls no punches in showing Rosalie's daughters getting shot down and focusing on Rosalie herself cuddling a bloodstained bundle that was her baby. From there, Hostiles becomes inconsistently reticent. We see a running battle between the travelers and the Comanches, but when Yellow Hawk and his son are let loose to track them down and kill them, we only see the aftermath. Later, when the troopers and Cheyennes rescue their women from the trappers, we only hear their slaughter of the bad guys inside a house; like Rosalie, we only see gun-flashes, the sounds of stabbing and the screams of victims. Later still, after the convict has escaped and killed a trooper, Blocker's oldest buddy (Rory Cochrane), who'd been about to desert, rides off to chase down the killer. As with the Comanches, we find the convict dead the next morning, while Blocker's buddy has killed himself. Finally, the showdown in Montana climaxes with Blocker stalking the patriarch who had started the trouble, after everyone but Rosalie Little Bear have been killed. Blocker is clearly determined to finish the troublemaker off. While Rosalie watches in horror, trying to shield Little Bear's eyes, we see Blocker do something awful to the man -- most likely cut his throat -- from behind. This reticence is noteworthy in a R-rated film, and maybe praiseworthy when so many westerns are still spaghetti-inspired bloodbaths. But what Cooper might be saying about violence isn't really clear. The way the final fight ends, you might think that Blocker's killing of the man might be a deal-breaker for whatever relationship he and Rosalie might have, that by taking this extra step -- who can say if it's really necessary? -- Blocker is showing something of his true nature that would repel her. Yet the film has a theoretically happy ending with Blocker deciding to join Rosalie and Little Bear on a train to civilization -- or at least to Chicago, in a result to which Rosalie presumably would not object. I suppose a commitment to a new journey is just what Blocker needs to avoid further dwelling on his violent past, but at once there's something too neat and too muddled about the way Hostiles addresses issues of violence and hatred, as if Cooper were satisfied that to address these issues is to settle them. In the end, I suspect that he's gone too far in superimposing our modern ideas of post-traumatic strain on an Old West that's ultimately too abstract -- practically the only activities we see are transportation and killing -- to be convincing. The West of Hostiles is a place where post-traumatic stress seems to be the normal state of being, which is not quite what D. H. Lawrence was saying about America. Of course, he was a kinky English novelist, so what does he know, but if you take your epigraph from him, and then you make Hostiles, there's some contradiction going on. Either he's right, or Scott Cooper is -- or, more likely, both of them are wrong.