I haven’t watched many movies lately. I’m still happily slogging away through the Breaking Bad Universe (I’m on Season 2 of Better Call Saul) and pretty content about it. There’s a theory floating around that people are more interested in long-form narratives than stand-alone movies these days, hence the popularity of Game of Thrones, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the like. Recently I watched The Greatest Showman and came away disappointed because I thought it felt rushed. Perhaps it’s also my expectation that stories are better when writers build characters and narratives throughout several movies or seasons. Maybe movies just won’t cut it for me anymore? Google tells me the Marvel Cinematic Universe run time is 23 hours and 48 minutes. With that kind of mileage, how can I possibly care about P.T. Barnum like I did Tony Stark?
But Hostiles blew me away. The creators made the most of their two hours and 13 minutes to make me care about the story and the characters in a well-trodden genre (Western), and in a way that I hadn’t seen before. In short, Hostiles is a story about traumatized people and how some people overcome their trauma, and others don’t. It’s a tough theme, but the writers do it with subtlety, even tenderness, despite its superbly tragic scenes (like the one in the opening).
Here is the Netflix synopsis: After a long career battling the Cheyenne, a U.S. Army captain is ordered to safely escort the tribe’s most influential chief to his Montana homeland. The movie starts with a tormented Christian Bale playing captain Joseph Blocker who, after years of violent fighting, hates the Cheyenne. Yet throughout his duty escorting the tribe’s leader and his family he finds humanity with his former enemy, and is ultimately willing to give his life for the tribe leader and his family. I want to point out a two scenes where I think the writers were especially novel in telling this story.
Early in the movie, there’s the obligatory scene in which Captain Blocker is brought before his commanding officer to receive his orders. It smacks as familiar, almost cliche, when Captain Blocker begins his diatribe against the Cheyenne leader and why he refuses to take the order, that is until his commanding officer interrupts Captain Blocker. “I don’t give a damn how you feel personally,” he says to Blocker. The commanding officer (and the writers) short circuit our expectations about how this interaction is going to happen, and rather than convey Captain Blocker’s disdain for the “savage” Cheyenne leader, we learn that Captain Blocker is “no angel” himself when it comes to violence against Native Americans. Captain Blocker has no audience for his reasons and grievances against the Cheyenne leader. He leaves in turmoil, speechlessly contemplates suicide, and returns the following morning to execute his orders.
The next scene that comes to mind is the one between Captain Blocker and one of his men, who is in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound. It’s a quiet scene, just Captain Blocker and his sergeant, and its reminiscent of other familiar scenes featuring an emotional goodbye between soldiers, with the minor character offering his dying words of gratitude or contemplation before passing on. Think Forest Gump and Bubba (a great scene, by the way). But this is not what we get. Henry (the sergeant) is not dying, and has survived the fighting when others on the detail did not. Still, he expresses disappointment in himself for being unable to “finish what we’ve started.” To this, Captain Blocker responds, “you never let me down…you’re always centered. Focused. Without you on my flank, I likely would have met my end a long time ago.” The two exchange words of affection and sob quietly. Captain Blocker leaves saying, “with any luck we’ll meet down the road.” It’s not a scene about dying or saying goodbye forever. Instead it’s a scene about loyalty, and parting ways. It’s a scene about recognizing that being part of a unit is special, and they each mourn the loss of their dissolved partnership.
Other narrative decisions make Hostiles refreshing and moving, which you’ll have to see for yourself. While the outcome is mostly tragic for many of the characters, Captain Blocker’s end feels so satisfying, so redemptive, that it seems to make up for all the pain and bloodshed along the way. At the VERY end, the writers make Captain Blocker whole when he chooses joy over pain. We don’t know what happens next, but it doesn’t matter. Two hours and 13 minutes are all the writers needed to show us that Captain Blocker is going to make it, and going to be okay.