Unforgiven wrote the book on postmodern westerns. There’ve been better and worse varieties since then. The Quick and the Dead and Open Range are personal favorites, while Wyatt Earp and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are too ponderous for my tastes. Hostiles is neither extreme but a solid addition to the post-Unforgiven western.
Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) is an honored soldier near the end of his career. He’s assigned to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) so he can die of cancer at his home. Along the way Blocker’s party discovers Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), lone survivor of a vicious native attack on her family’s farm.
The idea is that both Blocker and Yellow Hawk have done terrible things in battle. We haven’t seen any of them but people confirm their legend. Perhaps they are printing the legend but we can imagine the frontier wars were not pretty. Yellow Hawk is too ill now to be a threat but Blocker still does not want to show him humanity. Blocker’s superiors basically blackmail him to force him to do it.
Pike is extraordinary conveying the PTSD of losing her whole family. Just the sight of Native Americans and their tents trigger her. That is Hostiles‘ greatest contribution to the genre. Even Unforgiven didn’t show the victims of violence react so viscerally, perhaps because they had to still appear strong in town, but this is a worthwhile depiction.
There is violence and a quest element to the story, but the focus is on the realities of frontier life. These characters are living a war. Other members of Blocker’s party succumb to bloodlust and others try to maintain their humanity. There are more harrowing attacks on Blocker’s party.
25 years after Unforgiven, we’re still coming to terms with the realities of our country’s birth. We have to admit our ancestors exterminated people who lived here first, just as we need to deal with centuries of owning other human beings as slaves. There’s more than one movie to make about these and more subjects so Hostiles is a worthwhile exploration of the America’s violent past, in more personal detail than a history book.