As much as I love the “classic” Western, it’s been fascinating to witness how such innovative filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers have continued to play with and subvert its traditional form (perfected by the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone). With Hostiles, director Scott Cooper pushes the genre towards its next evolutionary stage, crafting a complex and compelling meditation on the history of racial violence that has always existed in the periphery of these types of stories.
Christian Bale plays an active military captain (one of many unconventional twists on the formula) tasked with escorting a former Cheyenne freedom fighter back to his homeland (along with his family), where he hopes to succumb to the cancer ravaging his body in relative peace. Initially bristling at this assignment, viewing it as a betrayal of all of his comrades who have fallen in combat against the “savages,” the disillusioned soldier gradually develops a grudging respect for his charge as they face numerous perils along their journey (including a marauding band of Comanches, fur trappers that dabble in human trafficking, and bigoted ranchers). There is no grand epiphany, no clear-cut reconciliation—just a mutual, unspoken acknowledgement between two brutal men that they are both guilty of horrible atrocities; previously united only in their hatred for what the other represented, they begin to find common ground in mourning all they have lost—much of it as a consequence of their own shortsighted, self-destructive actions.
That’s the coda that resonates as the end credits roll: the thirst for vengeance and retribution—to hurt others as badly as you’ve been hurt—will ultimately burn the whole world down, until nobody remains to enjoy the spoils of their hollow victory. There is no glory in bloodshed—only anguish, emptiness, and devastation.
[Originally written January 6, 2018.]