This film will be remembered long after some of the actual Oscar nominees are forgotten.
Scott Cooper‘s Hostiles didn’t get nominated for an Academy Award. It seemed possible the movie could pull off a surprise under-the-fold nomination for something like Best Costume Design or Best Sound Mixing. But given the film’s complete absence from all major awards leading up to today, it’s not a surprise that it was shut out of Oscar contention. Rather than rehash arguments about which films deserve what on March 4th, I thought I might take a moment to sing the praises of Hostiles before its wide release this weekend. It may not be in line for Oscar gold, but something tells me Hostiles — like many challenging Westerns before it — will be remembered long after some of the actual nominees have been forgotten.
Even by Hollywood contender standards, the release for Hostiles has been fairly protracted. The film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September and then quickly cycled through many of the fall’s most important festivals. It qualified an awards season run in limited release beginning on December 22nd, and has continued to roll out slowly in the intervening weeks. This Friday marks more than a month since the film’s initial opening, putting the movie in an awkward spot. With no Oscar campaign to speak of — and no serious box office prospects owing to its mangled release schedule — Hostiles needs a miracle to break through against the Oscar-nominated movies returning to theaters for a victory lap. Those who do brave the theaters to watch Cooper’s film, however, will find that it does what only Westerns do best: it examines the failures of the present through the sins of the past.
Following in the traditions of classic and revisionist Westerns alike, Hostiles offers us a vision of a rapidly modernizing America, where the violence and bloodshed of the American-Indian War is being subverted in service of the Great American Narrative. What makes Hostiles so important is the immediacy it brings to this history. While it’s important not to weigh a film too heavily against the climate of its release, Hostiles is a movie well-suited to conversations about white nationalism. For each of the characters, the tension between the wars of yesterday and the peace of tomorrow is a constant source of personalized trauma. This is a side of war typically reserved for movies about Iraq and Afghanistan. When we teach men to dehumanize the enemy to become better killers, what hope is there for them at the end of the war? And what do you do when you discover that this finely tuned hatred is no longer relevant to the world?
Christian Bale‘s Blocker is a man who has been consistently praised for his ability to kill the enemy. When the winds change and public outcry suggests America may, in fact, have perpetrated a great injustice against Native Americans, Blocker finds himself trapped behind this lifetime of rage that once sustained him. Seemingly overnight, his racism shifts from an accepted matter of fact to a professional liability, and even his fellow soldiers openly wonder at times if it was simple happenstance that kept Blocker from being prosecuted for war crimes. This is the type of history that Americans aren’t particularly adept at telling, the years of transition between violence and peace, where bigotry isn’t so much eradicated as it is buried deep beneath the surface. In this manner, Hostiles is the next logical step beyond films like Ulzana’s Raid, which used the Vietnam War as an excuse to reevaluate the histories told about the American West. Many movies have come to reject the American exceptionalism of manifest destiny, but Hostiles is the rare work to wallow in its immediate aftermath.
The film’s immediacy is made more impressive by its origin story: as noted in several of its reviews, Hostiles is based on a manuscript by 1990s screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, best known for The Hunt for the Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. Given that era’s penchant for white savior narratives — the sort that Hostiles occasionally falls into, I might add — it’s astonishing to see how much space in the film is dedicated to exploring this cultural wound. If, as many historians have suggested, America has never truly had to come to terms with its own history of slavery, then Hostiles makes it clear that the atrocities of the American-Indian War are just as fresh a transgression. One man’s journey towards redemption is not enough to atone for a country’s worth of sins.
In a decade’s time, I’d like to think that the quintessential 2017 double-feature will be Hostiles and Mudbound, two films that explore the failures of America in the wake of a war. History remembers these moments with the simple turn of a page — we were at war, then we weren’t, and things were allegedly better — but both Cooper and Dee Rees’s films depict the aftermath of these conflicts as more a period of forgetting than remembering. Mudbound will be remembered as the more authentic story since, unlike Hostiles, her characters of color have their own internal lives, but Hostiles, even in its limited perspective of the war, is no less damning in how it chooses to depict America. And until we come to terms with our own violent past, as the saying goes, we are endlessly doomed to repeat it.