The year is 1892, and the relentless move westward has succeeded in transplanting thousands of adventuring sprits to the wild lands where buffalo used to roam.
Native Americans have been reduced to small numbers of marauding bands, with entire tribes eradicated or placed on reservations.
“Hostiles” looks into this chaotic time period, telling its story with unnerving honesty. It refuses to color the world in black and white or good and evil the way most films in the Western genre tend to do. Instead, “Hostiles” emphasizes a different sort of truth. Atrocities occur on both sides, and righteous causes are grounded in perspective rather than in unerring fact.
It’s easy to be swept away by the cinematography of canyon landscapes and open expanses in this film. High action comes galloping through every scene with horses’ nostrils flaring, arrows flying, and gun shots hitting their mark. Blood flows, the dead are buried, and a quest continues. In all of it, an interior of quiet contemplation, of psychological re-imagining lies at the center. Hard truths melt and then give way to new.
At the forefront, Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) erupts in anger when he’s given a new assignment from his superior. By President Harrison’s orders, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family will be released to return to their ancestral lands in Valley of the Bears, Montana. Yellow Hawk has cancer, and as the government expansion into Indian territory continues, this humanitarian gesture will be helpful. It will be Blocker’s job to secure safe passage from the New Mexico fort where Yellow Hawk and his family have been held for the last seven years.
Shortly after Blocker and party depart, they encounter a terrible scene. Inside a burned-out cabin, a distraught Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) cradles her baby and tells the soldiers not to wake her two sleeping girls. Her husband’s body lies sprawled in the dirt outside. It takes only a moment for Blocker to realize all the children have been murdered by a band of Indians.
He attends to Rosalie and attempts to awaken her to the reality of her plight. She buries her initial terror when she sees Yellow Hawk and his family. She will reluctantly join the group on their long journey, but she will have to reconcile the placid Yellow Hawk with the nightmarish faces of the Indians who killed her family.
What ensues will involve multiple incarnations. Blatant, blind hatred will give way to moments of clarity and understanding. Fear will give way to trust. Atrocities will be acknowledged on both sides.
Not everyone will arrive at the final destination; some will die trying. They will ultimately recognize each other’s humanity. It’s a quiet respect that ensues with hope instilled for a better future. “Hostiles” reminds us that we can do better than the status quo.
Rated R for strong violence and language.
Marilyn Robitaille has been writing film reviews since 1999.