“Hostiles” explores racial prejudice, violence and moral ambiguity

Unrelentingly grim, director Scott Cooper’s deliberately paced “Hostiles” is a complex, though flawed, analysis of the nature of violence.

“Hostiles” begins with a brutal confrontation which effectively sets the tone for the remainder of the film. This sequence underlines the fact that the film is not meant to be enjoyed in the traditional sense, especially not as a Valentine’s Day film. For viewers looking for a romantic date night, “Hostiles” should be avoided at all costs. In the world of “Hostiles,” violence can strike at any moment, often when one least expects it.

Set in 1892, “Hostiles” centers around racist United States Cavalry captain Joseph Blocker, portrayed by Christian Bale, whose many years of slaughtering Native Americans have taken a severe psychological toll on him. By the request of the U.S. president, Blocker and a small group of cavalry soldiers reluctantly escort the dying Chief Yellow Hawk of the Cheyenne people, portrayed by Wes Studi, and his family to Yellow Hawk’s homeland in Montana. Their arduous journey across the American West leads Blocker and his men to reflect on the atrocities they have committed throughout their careers and gain an appreciation and respect for their Native American prisoners.

Cooper’s film should satisfy fans of the western genre with its convincing acting, tactile cinematography and relevant themes.

Though set in 1892 during the prolonged conflict between European settlers and Native American tribes, the film contains themes which profoundly resonate in today’s politically-charged society.

Escorting Yellow Hawk brings Blocker extreme mental anguish because he is unable to reconcile his deep-seated hatred and prejudice toward Native American people, a group he’s been conditioned to kill. Blocker’s character arc throughout the film proves satisfying, though predictable. His initially unsympathetic worldview changes during the film, illustrating a central theme — the importance of unity and mutual understanding amid tumultuous circumstances.

The film also examines the psychological impacts of violence, particularly with regard to post-traumatic stress.

The film sends a message that violence and hatred only yields more violence and hatred, which resonates amid 2018’s toxic partisan climate.

Though “Hostiles” has good intentions, the film fails to fully realize its potential. For a film with such profound themes, it’s surprising that Cooper decides to give the central Native American characters significantly less character development than the central white characters.

This ironically white-focused perspective lessens the film’s emotional power, relegating Yellow Hawk’s character arc to the background. Witnessing the apathetic Blocker and his bigoted men be redeemed doesn’t carry the emotional weight Cooper intends.

Nevertheless, Studi gives a memorable performance as Yellow Hawk, conveying intense emotion without relying on dialogue.

Bale gives a surprisingly nuanced, subtle performance as Blocker, a soldier whose stoic mannerisms contradict his inner mental turmoil. Despite Bale’s acting, much of Blocker’s dialogue is mumbled beneath a thick mustache, which renders some conversation sequences difficult to follow.

Rosamund Pike’s performance as the grieving Rosalie Quaid, whom Blocker and his men encounter along their journey, is also emotionally raw. Quaid undergoes her own arc during the film, where she eventually forms deep motherly bonds with Yellow Hawk’s family. While her character has surprising depth, her arc doesn’t feel earned, given the film’s limited perspective.

If the harsh plot and philosophical themes prove off-putting to viewers, Cooper’s eye for scenery should at least impress audiences — often juxtaposing the small group of voyagers against an arid, barren, imposing backdrop of the American West.

Though frequently hard to watch because of the extreme brutality and the bleak plot, “Hostiles” should satisfy viewers intrigued by ambitious themes and morally gray characters.