I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.