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Scott Cooper shoots a Western with its eye on the modern world

Actors Wes Studi and Christian Bale in a scene from the film “Hostiles”

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Turn on the news and you immediately encounter the ongoing friction between social discourse and cultural activism. We have been told that the best way to handle conflict is via open and honest communication, but there is a fragility to talk; it breaks down under the barest level of engagement. The two opposing sides can’t speak to one another without offending. Honesty may not be valued in the ways we proclaim. What it can present is defanged exchanges where every term gets obscured by an intention to protect delicate sensibilities or on the other extreme, naked bigotry, masked by a desire to gain protection for such feelings and opinions. How do we deal with our inherent biases?

It seems fitting to start a critical conversation about “Hostiles,” the new film from screenwriter-director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) with such lofty socially-minded philosophical pronouncements, because it presents deeply entrenched hardline adherents who refuse to see any value in the other side. And when debate fails (or has no chance from the outset), the only recourse is action, hostile action. The Western, as a genre, has granted us the opportunity to address contemporary issues from a certain critical remove.

Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes. As a legendary soldier in the mid-to-late 1800s, Blocker has fought and killed Native Americans under order of the United States government. He has executed his duty with extreme prejudice. He has lost soldiers and massacred his enemy with an unwavering sense of righteousness in his cause.

But by 1892, Blocker receives an order to escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), a long-time nemesis, and his family back to their land, so that the chief can die and be buried among his tribe. There is a barely disguised wariness in both men and those who follow them, yet an ingrained code of honor that each feels compelled to respect. Blocker takes the assignment, knowing that the party will traverse dangerous territory, making it likely that he and his men will have to fight and kill, in order to survive. The possibility exists for them to “lose” their charges along the way.

On the road, the unexpected arrives in the form of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), the lone survivor of a brutal rogue Native American attack. Quaid watched as her husband and young children were slaughtered. By the time the party crosses paths with her, Quaid barely has her wits about her. She’s psychologically damaged, an exposed raw nerve that sets off the protective instincts in both Blocker and his soldiers as well as Yellow Hawk’s family. She serves as the mirror that allows the seemingly opposing sides to recognize not only their humanity but that of their counterparts.

As would be expected, there’s not a lot of dialogue on the journey. Orders are given and executed. People tend to the wounded among them when violence breaks out. But so much of what matters remains unvoiced. Cooper shows us how each side watches the other, checking for signs of, perhaps, a slight willingness to adjust their perspectives. In the heat of the moment, a flicker here, a movement there can mark the difference between where a blade or a bullet breaks the skin of a friend or foe.

Of course, friendship is not the correct terminology. Blocker and Yellow Hawk don’t become friends; that would be an impossible fairy tale outcome. Each loses more allies, which is what starts to tether them together in an uneasy alliance. Do they ever talk about their feelings? I’ll let you make your own guess about that.

What truly results, in a meaningful way, is an understanding that neither side can claim to be morally absolute. There is no right or wrong, no sense of things being purely black or white. The narrative hedges, ever so slightly, by showing us the unadulterated massacre of the Quaid family, leaving us with the image of Native American brutality. Cooper spotlights the harsh efficiency of the American soldiers in response to attacks along the way, but there is always a justification for their actions that we, as an audience, can support. That is a sign of the privilege of being able to write your own redemption, I suppose.

“Hostiles” wants to make the point that said redemption though is never complete. It refuses to absolve the combatants on either side. I believe that is definitely true, because sadly, the hostility that fueled the conflict never burns away.

Rating: R

Grade: B