When I heard the praise that the new western movie, “Hostiles,” received, I was intrigued to say the least. Supposedly a new take on the genre, the film was said to have stayed true in some key elements — like battle scenes while travelling — but taken a different direction on its message and narrative on Native Americans, who are erroneously portrayed as animalistic and savage by the genre. And while the film does stray from that offensive depiction, that isn’t really saying much. “Hostiles” leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to its lopsided storytelling.
Considering that the beginning of the logline names an Army chief, Joseph “Joe” Blocker (Christian Bale) and Cheyenne warrior, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), you might assume that the movie would dedicate time to both of them, developing the relationships, pasts and character of both the major figures. It’s a reasonable assumption, but it’s wrong. “Hostiles” is another film about a white man, wrestling with his inner conflict and a white woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) who’s saved by him. Chief Yellow Hawk and his family are set to the backdrop. At least, it feels that way. We know very little about their background except what Joe tells us in the exposition, which was mainly a defiant rant calling Yellow Hawk a “savage.”
While Joe eventually aligns himself with the chief and “changes his ways,” it feels lackluster because he barely interacts with him or his family throughout the film. Therefore, we as an audience barely interact with them despite the fact that they’re such great characters. In what little exposure we do have to Chief Yellow Hawk and his family, we get to see their skill in battle and compassion.
One of the most obvious ways the movie lacks in terms of storytelling is the opportunities it ignores in the interesting story of Elk Woman. Shortly after Rosalie joins the group after her family was murdered, Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), the chief’s daughter-in-law, offers her clean clothes and support despite being told not to speak to her. Elk Woman goes through some of the same trauma that Rosalie does. Elk Woman had been imprisoned for seven years, although her son, Little Bear, was alive, she likely lost countless family members to U.S. soldiers and halfway through the film both women are kidnapped and raped. Yet, it felt like the film and Joe were more concerned with Rosalie’s fate than Elk Woman’s despite knowing that the two women were friends and allies at this point. Rosalie’s character isn’t necessarily a bad one, but the fact that she takes up more screen time suggests that she’s somehow more important than Elk Woman whose perspective we’re barred from.
Despite all this, the film does have some redeeming qualities. For one, it opens up a dialogue atypical for western films about the genocide and brutal treatment of Native Americans throughout history. Several characters, including Joe at the end of the film, mention how American land was the Native’s land first, note how war has damaged not only U.S. soldiers but also Natives, and advocate for the release of imprisoned Natives. Several scenes are dedicated to displaying Cheyenne culture, such as the funeral scenes for Chief Yellow Hawk and the movie makes distinctions between tribes. Chief Yellow Hawk as an elder and warrior is portrayed as the most level and wise character of the bunch and justly so. However, because most of the commentary about war and treatment of the Natives comes from white characters, the film robs Chief Yellow Hawk and his family of much of a voice. “Hostiles” may have been a new take on the western, and perhaps even a step in the right direction, but it still leaves plenty to be desired.