Why this film?: Because oh, Timothée Chalamet had another movie released in 2017? Let’s go three for three on this one.
The film: There are two major reasons that Hostiles is not remembered as part of Timothée Chalamet’s breakout year. The first is that it barely got a proper rollout, getting the kind of unfathomably late jump into awards season that’s only conceivable if you’re Martin Scorsese releasing another passion project late into the year, and even then will only get one nomination because the material is too heady and heavy to resonate so late in the year, especially next to a shoddier, more lurid vision of Christian torment perseverance. As austere as Hostiles and its advertising is, the film had neither the time to break into the game nor the clout to have a chance in the first place. The other big reason that no one brought up Hostiles alongside Chalamet’s lauded turns in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird is that he’s barely in the movie, adding an appreciated nervous energy to the proceedings but mostly fading as a character after he’s introduced, asking why he was selected as part of an escort of soldiers assigned to return a dying Cheyenne warrior and his family back to their tribal lands. Captain Joe Blocker, the leader of this party, responds that Chalamet’s Private DeJardin was chosen by the same Colonel that forced Blocker into the mission with no reason given. We never find out why DeJardin is there, and his relegation to the background is so pronounced that a few cuts to him in a traveling scene are enough to indicate that the soldiers are about to be attacked by a previously seen band of Comanche Indians, and that he will be the first casualty of that attack. Everything about Hostiles is so set in stone from its opening sequence that any variance is enough to signal that something is about to happen, and if the austerity of it all – in tone, in technical execution, in Scott Cooper’s direction and shaping of performance – is frequently impressive to behold, it’s also profoundly limiting. Each filmmaking decisions is meant to serve its thesis on Blocker as a manifestation of American cruelty, and how his actions as a soldier have left him congested with remorse and despair that will be tested and refracted in different ways by the folks in his traveling party. The mentally unstable widow, the dying Indian chief and his family, the depressed soldier and close friend, the eager new recruit, and the vicious prisoner Blocker is later assigned to hold, all manage to say and do a lot without ever feeling like real people. Rather, they’re sounding boards and speakers to bounce off Blocker and everything Cooper claims Blocker represents. If there’s a level by which all of Hostiles’ artistic choices are to be commended for so capably serving the ideas it wants to explore, there’s another level by which those choices must be critiqued as being so transparent and uncreative in design and execution that the whole piece ends up feeling hollow.
What’s most eye catching about Hostiles – and perhaps most distracting – is the sheer polish of its construction. The film opens on a scene of the Quaid family in quiet, domestic bliss. Before long this tranquility is broken as a squad of Comanche Indians are seen riding towards them in the distance, and Mr. Quaid takes up his gun while Mrs. Quaid takes their children and flees out the back door. One by one, her family is shot down until Mrs. Quaid is left hiding in a tree, clutching her dead baby to her chest and trying not to scream, listening to the leader of the Comanche stomp around the forest for her until he returns to his party. It’s a brutal sequence, setting up a lot about the world Hostiles is depicting but also how it depicts that world. There’s a real strive for authenticity, realized in the detailed sets and costumes. Rosamund Pike speaks her Southern accent as well as the actors playing her family, all of whom are appropriately styled and interact believably and affectingly as a family. The sounds of Mr. Quaid sawing wood function as much as a timepiece as they do a ticking bomb, and the score is affecting and artfully weaved through the action without being overbearing. Mercifully and often gorgeously, DP Madanobu Takayangi pays attention to the colors and textures of the sky, the buildings, the outfits, rather than succumbing to the bleakness of the narrative or popping the colors into melodrama. The editing of the gunfights successfully manages to follow a heat-of-the-moment structure that remains visually and geographically coherent even when a battle encompasses over ten characters, some galloping on horses and some running for cover.
In every frame, Hostiles works so hard to pass itself off as an authentic portrait of its era while simultaneously working as a deconstruction of its genre that the effort of those two impulses are barely hidden. I’m not questioning or contradicting the skill of the film’s artists, but I do quibble with how the cinematography and editing and sound design and performances are so studiously put together that they beg our attention as assembled parts more than artistic choices serving the film. Its restraint and sobriety are painfully contrasted by how cinematic its execution is, making a false show of its own modesty. More than that, it’s too clean. If the world is sad, and its characters worn and dirty from trying to traverse and combat it, no one told this to the filmmakers. It’s one thing for the fight scenes to be coherently shot and cut, but none of them ever risk being chaotic even when Blocker and his men have been ambushed and outnumbered. For all the beauty of the images, they don’t actually have anything to say about the characters or the cruelty of the frontier. Yes, Hostiles is committed to passing itself off as a historically accurate recreation of the era its depicting, but everything about its construction is so showily distracted with realism that it never actually editorializes on the viewpoints of the characters or connects in any way to their experiences. It’s so detailed that it’s distracting, so polished that I was frequently pulled out of the movie because of how mechanically assembled it is to generate the exact same feeling of anxiety and despair it maintains for its entire run time.
This superficially impressive but ultimately hollow construction is present not just in its technical aspects but in its performance style. Christian Bale’s version of white, masculine crisis, a barely submerged version of depression and despair, is an affecting spectacle but also painfully obvious in execution and profoundly modern in how he gets these character beats across. There’s no way anyone couldn’t see what his character is going through, to the point that any goading or commentary on his mental state almost feels redundant. Of course he’s in a bad place that we would call PTSD, how could anyone miss it? On the other end of the spectrum, Rosamund Pike performs her character’s attempts to stay sane and falls into madness with committed intensity, embracing the cliched construction of Mrs. Quaid as an wellspring of all the pain that the menfolk keep studiously repressed. She gives one of the film’s most surprising acting beats in the opening sequence, so focused on staying hidden from the Comanche leader that we have no indication if she’s aware her baby is dead in her arms, but Pike also looks painfully under rehearsed in a sequence that seems specifically formatted for her to improvise her character’s anguish as she tries to dig a plot for her baby with her bare hands. It’s feral and unwieldy, perhaps too poorly contrasted with her composure in the previous scene and speaks most to a stock characterization than this specific woman, but it’s also a variation from the kind of dourness that cloaks almost everything else in Hostiles. Wes Studi never gives us a way in to his silent, contemplative Yellow Hawk chieftain, but neither does he ever seem to be dying aside from some amateurish coughs to signify that his illness has left him days to live. Ben Foster shows up as a murderous soldier being escorted to his camp for execution, and his monologues about how Blocker is no less unsettled than him are too calculated in their effect to make a huge impression. The performance never grows wildly unhinged, sounding as rational and outraged as the character can allow, simply to maximize how sane he appears to be and therefore maximize how valid his argument must be. All of it is so calculated to achieve its designed impact that tremors like Pike’s wildness, Chalamet’s nervousness, and Jesse Plemmon’s boy scout sincerity and genuine fear in the face of death, all matter because they feel spontaneous and alive in a way that never breaches the rest of the film.
The lack of variance in tone is emblematic of Hostiles’ inability to get into anyone’s headspace aside from those of Blocker and Mrs. Quaid. As scripted, there’s little room for these characters to be more than whatever the script needs them to be, and the direction and editing stymies the actors from adding much detail outside of what they’re asked to do in script, if that. Synecdoche, New York, a wildly different film in content and tone, is able to flesh out its lead character’s neuroses while delineating which of his feelings are universal and which aren’t, allowing everyone in his orbit to have their own problems even as his pain is the primary filter by which he and we see what those characters are experiencing. Meanwhile, the most disappointing part about Hostiles is how Blocker’s congested angst blankets the whole film to such a degree that no other character is able to have their own textures or nuances outside of how they reflect his sorrow back at him. Making his white, masculine sorrow the defining angst of the film plays as a weak filmmaking gesture in itself but also snuffs out any chance for other characters to spring to life. There’s no insight in how Henry Woodson’s experiences as a black soldier differ from Blocker’s, save one line of dialogue where he thanks Blocker for accepting him into his platoon when not many other captains would have. The best things that can be said about the film’s gestures to humanizing Chief Yellow Hawk and his family is that they don’t come across as any less developed than the major white characters who aren’t Blocker or Mrs. Quaid. Hostiles earns some credit for casting actual Native American actors and featuring several scenes of Yellow Hawk and his family talking with Blocker in Cheyenne, rather than casting non-Native actors or forcing them to speak only English for the sake of the audience. Then again, it indulges in some familiar racist tropes with the Comanche, having their warriors wear black and blood-red face paint while never speaking outside of war cries. A mid-film monologue of a colonel’s wife discussing Native American reparations is almost cruelly dismissed as the film constantly points us towards a disturbed Mrs. Quaid and uneasy Blocker as the wife rambles on despite being frequently asked to stop talking by her husband. It’s one of the few moments Hostiles goes out of its way to judge one of its characters, not for any self-professed savagery but for rightly pointing out that the white man has completely destroyed the America belonging to Native Americans and suggesting that actions should be taken to restore what was done. Strangest of all is the film’s handling of gender, where the men’s courteousness to Mrs. Quaid is tinged with fear for the possibility she may harm herself and others, and where the design of her character is as steeped in misogynist tropes about emotionally volatile women as Blocker is to stoically repressed men. There’s also a sequence whereMrs. Quaid and the women in Yellow Hawk’s family after they’re kidnapped by three fur traders, where it’s almost deliberately unclear what happened to. We see that all of them have torn clothing and bruised faces, and one of Yellow Hawk’s daughters is beaten on screen, but the lack of clarification as to what actually happened plays more like a lack of interest rather than distance caused by being only rooted in Blocker’s point of view. The fact that it has almost no impact on the narrative, save the death of a minor character and the lead in “If it’d been Comanche they would’ve done worse” before the prisoner character starts talking about how he’s no crazier than Blocker – again – certainly makes the whole episode feel like it never happened as soon as it ended.
What are we left with when Hostiles ends? The dour mood is so broad that while the film isn’t necessarily predictable, any plot development feels inevitable so long as whatever happens is awful to the main characters. Still, there’s something particularly unimaginative and deeply politically unsettling about a final shootoff that arrives almost literally out of nowhere, killing off almost everyone but leaving enough character that a makeshift nuclear family between two white characters and one of Yellow Hawk’s grandchildren. There’s no promise that anyone’s mental illnesses have been solved, even as the soothing comfort of heterosexual partnership beckons the two surviving adults onwards, but this is also an insight that any number of movies can give you without being so unrelenting yet unimpactful in how it gets that idea across. It’s well crafted to such a degree that the quality of its crafts becomes a distraction, as well as an acting showcase for about two cast members that leaves them in cliched, gendered constructions of how people process their grief. It’s not as racist or misogynist as it could be, but that’s not a gold star that needs to be handed out. Hostiles is devoid of originality in conception and execution, working so hard to illustrate a single idea radiating from a single perspective that it feels incredibly empty even as it keeps showing us how hard ridiculously it’s trying to get that idea across. And I ask again, what are we left with?