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Uneasy Rider

Lorey Sebastian/Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Hostiles (2018)

Did the makers of “Hostiles” realize they were creating something that nails the zeitgeist? One hopes so, because as an example of the current reckoning and all the ways in which it is problematic, “Hostiles” is a towering achievement. As a film, it’s fine, but its importance lies in the current moment.

The movie begins with a raid on a settler homestead in New Mexico in 1892. The mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, superb), survives only because the infant son in her arms is shot dead with the bullet aimed at her. She, and the bodies of her children, are shortly discovered by a small army escort led by Joe Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is a notorious Indian fighter, first seen supervising an Apache man being lassoed for sport as his family screams. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, also superb) – an obvious stand-in for Geronimo – has been imprisoned for years and is now dying of cancer. Due to public outcry, it’s been decided he can return to Montana to die, and Blocker is the soldier tasked with getting him and his family there.

The journey gets off to a bad start, with second-in-command Metz (Rory Cochrane) confessing to severe melancholia adding to Blocker’s unwillingness to take Yellow Hawk and his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) out of chains. But the discovery of the Quaid homestead and Rosalie’s terrible loss changes everything. The journey is paused without question to care for her. Over a few days they coax her into burying her family; and when she cannot dig their graves herself, the men quietly set to. Black Hawk’s wife (Q’Orianka Kilcher, who is always a pleasure to see onscreen, even in a part where she has little to do and less to say) gives Rosalie her spare dress to replace her bloodstained clothes. So Rosalie stays with them on their journey, as they fight their way to safety in the next fort. She refuses to spend months stranded there and so Blocker takes her back, an especially unwise decision as a convict named Wills (Ben Foster) is also joined to their party. As they all travel north, the women continue to suffer worse than the men, and the men continue to learn vital and important lessons.

The secondary cast includes Jesse Plemons, Stephen Lang, Peter Mullan, Timothée Chalamet and Jonathan Majors as a buffalo soldier whose graciousness in the face of terrible pain inspires Blocker to tears. Those tears on Mr. Bale’s face are the point of write-director Scott Cooper’s film. “Hostiles” is about privileged white men becoming woke to the suffering of others. It’s about weary old soldiers becoming tired of killing and being inspired by the stoic suffering of their prisoners to become better men themselves. The suffering isn’t pornographic – the shocking opening sequence is as horrific as it gets – but the dangers are not just the roving band of Comanches, or lawless fur trappers, or the weather, or ranchers furious at trespass on their land.

Their own feelings are most often their downfall. Metz is so overwhelmed with what a modern eye can see as post-traumatic stress disorder that he is no longer capable of feeling anything. One soldier dies due to panicked inexperience, another due to human kindness. The lesson of the film is taught in a way that might resonate with the target audience without alienating people who already knew that suffering is bad, both for the sufferers and for the people who inflict it. For all its skill and quiet achievement, it’s just not clear what moment is right for privileged white men to hear this kind of lesson, or what suffering the underprivileged must endure to make the powerful feel the errors of their ways. Are the screams of a pretty blonde the only thing which inspires men to do better?

Mr. Bale excelled as the American psycho for the same reason his Batman was not truly a success – he is a man who projects contempt for others in everything he does. His most successful parts – in “The Fighter,” and this one – turn that contempt inward. Contempt seems to be a major emotion in America right now. The question around “Hostiles” is: now that it has identified the moment, will it be able to do anything about it?


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