Hostiles Review: What a 19th-century Western Can Teach Trump’s America

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Hostiles Review: What a 19th-century Western Can Teach Trump’s America

Scott Cooper’s exquisite-looking Hostiles starts off with an eerily melancholic and pertinent DH Lawrence quote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” The scene that follows this line is a gory, merciless slaughtering of a white settler family in New Mexico – the man is gunned down, hit by an arrow and scalped; his two teen daughters and their infant sibling are shot – by Comanches. The sole survivor of this rampage is the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who manages to run away and hide even as the Comanches set her family’s cabin on fire.

Only moments later, an Apache family is assaulted by American soldiers under the guidance of Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale, in one of his finest performances). They are then dumped like cattle at the isolated Fort Berringer populated by Native Americans who are chained and branded prisoners without any trial. Both these scenes are emblematic of the lack of empathy and the overpowering of violence that was the staple in the America of the day.

The year is 1892, the American Indian war is almost over, and Captain Joe Blocker, a pivotal participant of the wars who claims to have his reasons to hate “savages” is nearing retirement. It’s precisely at this moment that he is entrusted with his last mission: chaperoning the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk, his war nemesis through dangerous territory to his homeland in Montana. It’s a mission the haunted Joe desperately tries to distance himself from, blinded by his hatred for the man who’s killed his friends and colleagues. For him, Yellow Hawk is still a “cut-throat” and his family “a brood of bastards and bitches” and ones he partly blames for dehumanising him (There’s a gripping scene of PTSD affecting Blocker, that assumes a critical arc later in the film.)

Even as he grapples to understand his own pain, Joe agrees to the mission, forced by his superior’s threats of court-martial. Joe, who starts out being a haunted and vengeful soldier soon emerges as a complex and empathetic figure, who reads Julius Caesar in Latin by night, and who speaks the native language and becomes conscious of the worthlessness of the violence that he’s been conditioned to accept. In the journey that spreads out for the better part of the film, Joe begins to shed his hardened exterior and at last unveils the softer side of his persona that realises, reflects, and regrets on the mistreatment of the Natives at American hands.

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles rallies for the most sacrosanct need of a nation as polarised as America now: inclusion.

Soon enough, he becomes their protector and sees them as equals. In no time, this long-dreaded journey manages to bring together the American soldiers and the Natives, elevating Hostiles from being a mere odd-couple drama (the chemistry and tension shared between Yellow Hawk and Joe is intense) to representing the values of an America that needs to be an ingenious surrogate family. The film looks at grief, violence and hatred in installments, quietly concluding the need to come together as one.

Along the way, this contemporary, politically conscious Western becomes a pertinent lesson for the America of the present, one that is seething from the uninterrupted rise of Neo-Nazis who’re determined to execute racially-motivated violence as in Charlottesville last year. The fact that almost none of the white supremacists who were guilty of attacking unsuspecting citizens have been punished, paints a bleak portrait of a nation dunked in hatred.

It’s further amplified by Trump’s harsh immigration policies, and his stance on immigrants that have resulted in a cultural and racial divide that America could do well without. The “us vs them” mentality that Trump’s America proudly wears on its sleeves could not only be the country’s undoing, but is also inherently anti-American. Just like Bale’s Joe attempts to unlearn hatred in Hostiles, Trump’s America needs to contemplate on its natural instinct of walling themselves in.  

Hostiles tells us, in as many words, that there can be no greater mistake than not learning from the mistakes of our past. By taking a long, hard look at the dangers that division proved to be back in the day, Hostiles goads contemplation of the racial divide, and the forms that it exists in even to this day.

In doing so, Hostiles rallies for the most sacrosanct need of a nation as polarised as America now: inclusion.