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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Hostiles movie review: white man’s burden

Hostiles yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Sure, millions of Native people dead and ancient cultures destroyed, but who has to live with that? All the good soldiers who were just following orders, that’s who. Won’t someone think of the white man?tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

You know what the real white man’s burden is? Living with the guilt of the colonialism, oppression, and genocide you are party to. I mean, look at North America. Sure, millions of Native people dead and ancient cultures destroyed, but who has to live with that? All the good soldiers who were just following orders, that’s who. No one talks about that, do they? Won’t someone think of the white man?

Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Out of the Furnace) is thinking of the white man in Hostiles, his revisionist Western that revisions the genre right back into the white man’s perspective, where it belongs. Oh, there will be lessons to be learned by the white man, lessons about how being a racist murderer weighs down on a white man, about how giving in to feels about the “things” he’s “done” will be difficult and painful. And really, isn’t the biggest crime in all this how the white man is forced to suppress his emotions and his humanity, how he suffers while making others suffer? Doesn’t the white man deserve absolution from the noble savage? If he’s truly sorry, I mean? (If there are any noble savages who’ve survived, that is.) Of course he does.

“Are you tellin’ me that the red man is human too? What kinda craziness is that?”

“Are you tellin’ me that the red man is human too? What kinda craziness is that?”

US Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale: The Big Short, Exodus: Gods and Kings) is a “good soldier” who has made a career of fighting “wretched savages,” but now, even at the end of his army days, he is not satisfied that he has done enough. “There ain’t enough punishment for his kind,” Blocker believes of Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi: A Million Ways to Die in the West, Avatar), who has been held prisoner — along with his family, including a young grandson — for seven years at an army compound in New Mexico. The year is 1892, the frontier is closing, and attitudes toward the Indian back east are softening. The order comes from Washington: Yellow Hawk, who has got the cancer, and his family are to be escorted back to “sacred Cheyenne territory” in Montana, where he can die in peace. As a one-last-mission before his retirement, Blocker is assigned the task. This is an indignity that Blocker would rather not have to endure, but his pension is at stake, so off they go.

Scott Cooper’s revisionist Western revisions the genre right back into the white man’s perspective, where it belongs. /snark
tweet

Now, I know it sounds like Hostiles is a bit a SJW-ish, in suggesting that the white man isn’t in fact happy as a june bug to be slaughtering people for not being white, and for being on his land before he got there. And maybe it is, a bit. But I’d hate for you to think that the film does anything too radical, like present Yellow Hawk and his family as complicated human beings or anything. The Native Americans here are strictly one-dimensional, which is all Blocker’s redemption for his war crimes requires: they just need to meet the abuse he doles out on their journey with quiet dignity, all the better to start thawing his cold, cold heart a little, and they certainly don’t need to be offering even any mild recriminations for the way they personally have been treated for the past seven years, never mind how their people have been treated for the past several centuries. Why would they need anything by way of dialogue or character development? They just need to be the noble savages. Like the crying Indian in that 1970s ad for the Keep America Beautiful campaign: here is Native sadness at the white man that ensures that the white man remains centered. (Director Cooper based his screenplay on a “manuscript” by Donald E. Stewart, writer of such films as 1982’s Missing and The Hunt for Red October. Stewart died in 1999, and if this film hews very closely to Stewart’s work, that could explain why it feels more like how movies used to be, rather than indulging in that dangerous impulse we see so much of onscreen now that suggests that nonwhite nonmale creatures are people worthy of having their own stories told.) Yellow Hawk’s son, Black Hawk (Adam Beach: Suicide Squad (2016), Cowboys & Aliens), does get a few lines of dialogue, with even fewer still for Black Hawk’s wife, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher: The Vault), and for his sister, Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1). Yellow Hawk’s grandson, Black Hawk’s son, Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief), barely says a word, just has to look cute and sad-eyed.

“I ain’t gonna be some lady here just to be abused so a white man can have some feels, am I? Am I?!”

“I ain’t gonna be some lady here just to be abused so a white man can have some feels, am I? Am I?!

But then we also have some marauding Comanches, who are even less than one-dimensional, and who certainly aren’t noble: they’re faceless boogeymen who swoop in and kill mercilessly. They did that to Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike: A United Kingdom, Return to Sender), a nice white lady the travelers encounter who is the only survivor of a Comanche attack on her family. The Comanche are still out there, and still dangerous, but can Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk convince Blocker that they must team up to defeat them? An alliance with savages is too much for Blocker to contemplate… but lo! The Cheyenne, who are literally in white-man’s chains, still have the kindness to give some clean clothes to the white lady, and to honor her grief, which is loud and heartrending. If the savages can be gentle with a white lady — just like Blocker is! — maybe they’re not so bad after all?

Will white man Christian Bale retain his manly stoicism while also grudgingly conceding that perhaps savages are people too?
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Still, there is a long way to go for Blocker. On one side, he has his master sergeant (Rory Cochrane: Oculus, Parkland), who has “the melancholy” over “our treatment of the Natives,” and on the other, an unrepentant soldier (Ben Foster: Inferno, Warcraft), whom the party is transporting to his hanging for heinous crimes that are unspecified but apparently indistinguishable from the “things” they all “did” to the Native peoples. Is there a middle ground for Blocker, one that lets him retain his manly stoicism while also grudgingly conceding that perhaps savages are people too?

“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” DH Lawrence wrote that in 1923, and Cooper uses the quote to open his film. But ha on Lawrence! Here’s Blocker’s soul starting to melt way back in 1892. Granted, the American soul has barely budged since. But it’s only been 126 years. Give it time.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.



yellow light 2.5 stars

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Hostiles (2017) | directed by Scott Cooper
US/Can release: Dec 22 2017
UK/Ire release: Jan 05 2018

MPAA: rated R for strong violence, and language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong violence, language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Tim Meyfarth

    Your membership in the anti-white male hatred and erasure movement has been noted and thus your opinion can be completely and totally dismissed and ignored. Have a nice day, blatant sexist and racist against white men.

  • Bluejay

    White man learns empathy for one-dimensional “noble savages,” and learns to feel guilt for his race’s crimes against them — didn’t we already give a Best Picture Oscar to this crap in 1990? Time for new perspectives, indeed.

  • Male “erasure”?

    Bwahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

    You’re so sweet. You actually think that the whole world revolves around white men. Adorable. Or it would be, if that idea weren’t so pernicious.

    Thanks for playing!

  • Are you referring to *Dances with Wolves*? Cuz there’s no comparison at all. DwW gives us Native character who are complex and complicated. That movie may be about a white man, but it also gives us a really great depiction of one Native culture. They’re not one-dimensional characters in DwW.

  • Bluejay

    It’s been — good lord — 37 years since I last saw DWW, so I may not be remembering it clearly. :-)

  • Bluejay

    White men make up overwhelming majorities in Congress, in corporate leadership, in Hollywood (both onscreen and off), and comprises all US presidents except one. When that’s no longer the case, maybe you’ll have a point about “erasure.” Until then, your opinion can be completely and totally dismissed and ignored. Have a nice day.

  • I’m saving this review for later, when I have time to read it—very much looking forward to it. I’m intrigued that it got a yellow light. Based on the trailer, it looked like something you’d hate. Then again, it looked like something I’d hate, so maybe I’m projecting. :)

  • Huh. Maybe I should watch that someday after all …

  • Aaron Jones

    Well, I thought I wanted to see this…

  • Yep, this sounds perfectly awful. I’m still confused as to why it didn’t get a red light. Especially given the plot point in which …

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    … every single female character is raped, enabling the men to bond over a common cause. You’ve talked about how much you dislike rape-as-backstory or rape-as-plot-device where the writers go, “Hmmm, what’s an easy way to convey huge trauma?” This seems like that, multiplied by however many women it happened to here.

    Of course, I only know this because I read a spoilery review. Did the movie somehow carry this off in a sensitive, nonexploitative way?

  • Gordios79

    You see the tree but you miss the forest… In your one dimensional vision you missed (maybe willingly) all the beautiful aspects and ideas of the film. In your effort to prove that the film’s perspective is one dimensional you managed to show that your perspective is the one dimansional – pity!

  • Yup, that plot detour is not good at all. The rapes are, at least, not depicted in a sensationalistic way. They happen offscreen, in fact.

    I didn’t give the film a red light because there are some minor redeeming aspects here: the performances, especially by Bale and Pike, are terrific, and there *is* value in the idea of a white man changing his mind about his own bigotry. It just could have been handled better.

  • Okay, I’ll bite: What did you find “beautiful” about this movie? Why are all the characters who aren’t white men depicted in such unnuanced ways? How is a story about widening one’s perspective on others served by depicting those others as one-dimensional characters from one-dimensional cultures?

    What, my larger question is, is the forest I’ve missed?

  • ratts ass

    you pretend to be unbiast and logical in your thinking. One of the worst pretentious reviewers out there. I’m amazed that you try to get or even have poeple paying to view your blog. Crazy.

  • you pretend to be unbiast and logical in your thinking

    LOL. I would love to hear your defense of this.

  • Paul W.

    Yes to all of this! I particularly love how Blocker is a living legend of a soldier yet somehow *SPOILER TO ANY SUCKER WHO SEES THIS*, can’t seem to keep anyone alive, not his soldiers, not his charges, only the nice white lady and the adorable Native American moppet,. Oh, and *THE UNKINDEST SPOILER OF ALL*, how the nice white lady will take the adorable moppet into her life and teach him the joys of not-Native-American living. Seriously? Have you been watching you own movie, for frigg’s sake?

  • BraveGamgee

    Please look at the pink box posted right above the body of the review :)

  • John

    It was kind of funny when this site went full troll the last couple of years. Now it’s just become sad and pathetic like this review

  • “Full troll.” LOL.

    Get used to feeling uncomfortable because you’re suddenly being exposed to new ideas. Women (and people of color) are not going to shut up.

  • John

    John

  • John

    No, I’m right and you should listen. Nobody cares about old white woman mimicking the dumb airheads at babe.net. People want legit movie reviews and criticism

  • Your discomfort is delicious.

  • CoCoLuv9491

    Hmmmm… cynical.

  • Tiffany Hansen

    Yaaassss to all of this. I was very tempted to go see this since I’ve heard they have an accurate portrayal of a Cheyenne dialect and cause Wes Studi and Adam Beach. But after seeing the trailer, I don’t like how it’s completely white centric and that the white characters are justified in their hate for Native Americans. I wish the movie would have been more incorporated more of the Native perspective (the movie does take place around 30 years after the Sand Creek Massacre, I would think they would have incorporated that into the movie).
    “But I’d hate for you to think that the film does anything too radical, like present Yellow Hawk and his family as complicated human beings or anything.” Well, that’s disappointing.

  • What’s cynical? To whom are to what are you responding?

  • It’s more than disappointing: It’s inexcusable.

  • CoCoLuv9491

    It’s a movie. Get over yourself.

  • CoCoLuv9491

    I’m responding to your “review.”

    It’s a good movie. So sorry it wasn’t PC enough for you.

  • You don’t understand what film criticism is, do you?

  • What is “cynical” about my review?

  • Tom Rose

    Some good points about the poor characterisation of the Indians, though this would have been limited by the language barrier. No comments about the fact that 3 major scenes took place off camera despite the long build up?

    Also it’s hard to take this review seriously on the whole as it seems to be more about you expressing your hatred of white people

  • would have been limited by the language barrier.

    What language barrier prevented the screenwriter from crafting fully human Native characters?

    expressing your hatred of white people

    LOL. Oh, you!

  • Great review. I lasted through 8 whole minutes of this racist movie. Why are we still making propaganda like this?

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