‘Hostiles’ tells a beautiful story, but exhibits Hollywood’s continual racial ignorance

Ty Davis

As the 2017 movie year closes and the Oscar season revs up studios begin to release their Oscar fodder, these films are usually more artistically focused, more serious and deal with heavier themes, but sometimes these themes are simplified or have very simple, massively appealing, messages. 

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“Hostiles” occupied an ambiguous position in all of this. The film would clearly be dealing with the theme of racism, but it was unclear how the film would handle this theme. Would the film stand by its Native American characters and offer insightful commentary, or would it simply fall back on a tested formula? Separating the film’s quality from its subject matter is not entirely possible—not when the two are so intrinsically connected. To a complicated extent, the film manages to fulfill both expectations.

The story takes place in 1892 during the western expansion of the United States and follows Christian Bale’s character Capt. Joseph J. Blocker in the final days of his military career. Before he can accept his retirement, though, his commanding officer assigns him a mission to escort Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk, played by Wes Studi, to an area in Montana known as Bear Valley. As Yellow Hawk is dying of cancer, the government decides to grant him his request, seeing the opportunity to also bolster their public relations. Blocker, who vehemently hates Native Americans, only agrees to the assignment under threat of his pension being revoked if refuses. Thus, with a crew of Union soldiers and Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, Blocker and the group set out on a treacherous journey to Montana, along the way they pick up Rosalie Quaid, played by Rosamund Pike, whose family was killed by a different tribe several days earlier.

While you may think this is another by the numbers movie where the racist main character learns to see other points of view and forgo his racism, that is only half true. While Blocker does eventually follow this story convention, it plays secondary to the film’s main plot and themes. The story’s focus is on the themes of death, violence and society’s hypocrisy toward violence and how it affects us, whether perpetuated or received. Various characters reminisce over their lost humanity, emotional detachment, and the film goes into extensive work to show how this sort of violence degrades ones emotional stability over time. This culminates in Blocker realizing that his perceptions of Native Americans as cruel and savage are really his own character traits just rebranded as virtues of being a soldier. The final epiphany comes in the film’s third act when Blocker realizes that everyone is simply a human being who deserves love and support, and this perpetuation of hatred and violence only serves to distance them further from each other.

“Hostiles” will be showing at Cinemark Fort Collins 16 at 12:25 p.m., 3:40 p.m., 6:55 p.m. and 10:10 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

As themes go, the theme of “Hostiles” is a beautiful one, and one that definitely needs more discussion and recognition. Not enough movies even mention the emotional toll of violence let alone make it the centerpiece of their entire film. “Hostiles” is a quiet, somber and melancholic film and exemplifies that in everything from the scoring, sound design, cinematography and acting. This is not a film for the impatient, but if you stick with it, the film will reward you with a silent beauty.

However, despite the film’s best attempts to be sensitive to these topics it falls into the same trap many other films do. From the poster you would be forgiven for thinking the film would balance time between the three major characters Block, Quaid and Yellow Hawk, but you would be sadly mistaken. Instead of focusing on Yellow Hawk’s experiences and perspective, the film focuses mainly on the conscience and journey of Block, pushing Yellow Hawk and his family to the way side. Quaid gets the second most screen time, while Yellow Hawk only has a handful of notable minutes of screen time. The film missed a golden opportunity for both Block and Yellow Hawk to have a back and forth about the film’s themes and have their own personal journeys. It really makes you wonder why Yellow Hawk and his family are even there in the first place if they were going to be so disregarded by the film. The themes are beautiful, but it was a poor choice of setting for these themes to be explored in.

Should you watch this? Maybe. 

For a film that tries to be progressive, it falls back on a safe storytelling method that will be digestible for a white audience, emphasizing the emotional journey of the white, male, protagonist while devaluing the experiences of the Cheyenne characters the film seemed so eager to emphasize.

Ty Davis can be reach at entertainment@collegian.com or @tydavisACW on Twitter