“It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.”
“Have you got a better way?”
In an early scene in Hostiles, Rosamund Pike’s character scrabbles in the dirt with her hands, trying to dig graves for her murdered family. We receive a bunch of closeups of just her hands clawing at the earth, and watching it, I felt this odd visceral familiarity I at first couldn’t place. It’s not as though I’ve struggled to dig graves with my bare hands. Then I remembered an afternoon a year ago, where I clawed madly at the earth with sweat pouring into my eyes, trying to recover flagstones that had been mostly or entirely buried in my backyard for generations, when a new neighbor paused awkwardly on the sidewalk to ask, of all antiquated, misplaced questions, why my husband wasn’t out helping me.
I peered up at the stranger through a haze of sweat and dust and said my husband’s grandmother was currently dying of the same disease I had just committed my mother for the previous weekend, and I couldn’t deal with it, so I had stayed behind when their family gathered to say goodbye. The poor neighbor mumbled something about hard work helping, and couldn’t flee fast enough.
Hostiles is somewhat ham-handed in places, it’s true. I don’t know how it couldn’t be. If the acceptance of any of its apologies could not be called into question through their sheer obliqueness, it would rightly be dismissed as insincere. But Hostiles is anything but insincere.
There is a lot of mumbling in this movie. A lot of speaking through hands pushed against faces and chins, fingers trying to twist the skin beneath into the shape of someone else, or to serve as a kind of filter for the words coming out. You have to pay attention to catch all that is said.
When nothing is said, though, there is the physicality to make up for it. It is the physical intimacy that made me draw back and first realize this was not another gritty John Wayne homage I had been dragged to. Or–to be less sulky about it — another visual call-up to what books like Blood Meridian want to be: a pitiless wallowing in the misery that built this country. That is what I expected, but that is not what Hostiles is. Joe’s (Christian Bale’s) crash to his knees, struggling with whether or not to kill himself rather than take on this last duty requested of him says as much. His frankly jaw-dropping guiding of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) into head-butting him in the chest as she briefly exits shock for what appears to be a kind of panic attack says as much. I cannot remember the last time I was so startled by a character’s non-sexual act of physicality. Nor was it — again thinking of Cormac McCarthy here–explained away by him having “a way with horses,” or dogs, or some animal bullshit meant to disguise a recognition of human suffering as some sort of animalistic shepherding urge. When he shields her from the sight that is undoing her with his body, it’s not because he has done this for his livestock. It’s because he’s a person and he knows what this is doing to her as a person, and he is attempting to make it less horrific.
Hostiles exits the modern day for its study of war-sourced PTSD, but it abandons the fraught politics of today for those equally fraught politics that made today what it is. It does not, as I worried it might, attempt to make equal one man’s loss of everything and multiple cultures’ loss of everything. It is not trying to redeem the cruelty of a nation with the kindness of an individual. It’s not even trying to redeem that individual — that is left up to him. And, as I keep insisting in my defense of the ending, if he didn’t doubt that he deserved anything good in his life, he wouldn’t deserve it. It is that doubt, that hesitation in that long shot of his face, that makes him worthy of some kind of upward turn. If he just gallivanted off into the sunset, fuck him. He’d be a poseur. But he’s still, at the end, the man who howled on his knees in the almost-desert, voice completed muted by the storm bum-rushing the plains, wondering if he should die. That is the man who deserves redemption. The one who isn’t sure, himself, if he should get a chance at it.
That is why I loved this movie.
My only character-based qualm is probably nothing to be proud of. I suppose it was bucking a trope, the bucking of which should be praised. But I disliked, at first, the reining in of Rosalie’s madness. “Let her unravel,” I thought. Don’t tidy her up into someone who once again wears pretty dresses and sits straight and speaks when spoken to. She has lost literally everything. She has a dumb line about faith that fits neither her character nor her circumstances. Let her rage. Let it consume her.
I know, I know. Loss-based madness is a kind of fridging, I guess, the avoidance of which should be lauded. But I didn’t think she was allowed the space she should have been to be as angry as she should have been. She has a couple scenes, sure, but she holds herself together too well. The Cheyenne in their party remark on it, saying it denotes strength, which, okay. Still. That thin veil of words (“oh but this has made you so strong,” as if anyone ever wouldn’t have traded that strength in a heartbeat to restore the one who was lost, pithy phrase be damned) was not enough, and would have rung hollowly, if not for one scene in a tent, following the suicide of one of Joe’s long-time companions (again, there is a lotttt of war-sourced PTSD on display here, and I kind of wonder if the pitch for this began from a desire to look at just the effects of it, divorced from the too-nearness of the last 14 years). I’d be curious to know how many takes it took, or what the stage directions were. Because again, were the comfort she offered maternal, it would be bullshit — a dismantling of what was, in fact, one person reaching out to another as an equal. Were it needy and sexual, it would also be bullshit — because if anyone should be past needing a quick pick-me-up fuck, it’s her. But he bows his head into her chin in much the same way she bowed her head into his chest earlier. And in much the same way — though he wouldn’t know this — that she presses her hand against her face, early on, to silence herself against those hunting her in the forest.
Yes, it’s comfort being given, but between equals. Anything else would be unpalatable.
I’ve just blathered about the white people in this movie, I know. That exchange in the beginning — “It oughtn’t to be this way, Joe.” “Do you have a better way?” — is telling, in the same way the Joe Henry song Our Song is:
This was my country
And this was my song
Somewhere in the middle there
Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong
It did start badly. Everything about it was brutal and bloody and made what came next. It’s not a justification — just a cause and effect. For there to have been a better way, people would have had to be better than they were. The better way would have been absence, I guess. A not-becoming. Not because, as Hostiles doesn’t hesitate to show, the tribes here were all peace, love and rainbows, but because whatever atrocities they committed upon each other didn’t — so far as anyone knows anyway — erase each other’s way of life, and even the memory of that life, from existence. That annihilation was specific to Joe and the better way he didn’t find.
I expect this is a criticism people might raise with this movie. That he should end as badly as his murdered friends, or the one who shoots himself, or the former comrade who lost it and killed his whole family with an axe — “It could just as easily be you in these chains.” This is, possibly, fair.
But if we would scoff at the idea that the redemption of one man should redeem the atrocities committed by his entire civilization, we should also maybe scoff at the idea that the damning of that same man does anything to help the people he hurt.
Yes, the handshake scene is, to me, ham-handed. The looks are too long; the pan down to the hands way too contrived. But I also recognize that, to me, there is too much forgiveness all around in this movie. And also that were I in any position to dole out that kind of forgiveness, I wouldn’t. I also wouldn’t be healing anything, you understand. People like me don’t fix problems like that, even on an individual, one-on-one basis. We make them worse.
But this movie isn’t about people like me. I wouldn’t have boarded the train. The little old lady in the next row wouldn’t have clapped for me, had I done so. But I didn’t pay to see a story of myself. I paid to see something better:
We’re pushing line at the picture show
For cool air and a chance to see
A vision of ourselves portrayed
As younger and braver and humble and free
The first time I encountered depression, it was in a western. A video game — Dust: A Tale of the Wired West. Like Hostiles, it takes place at the end of the 19th century, when everyone who unfurled their violence out across the plains began to realize even these spaces were no longer appropriate places to become animals. Even here, one was now expected to be put-together. Lawful. Human — despite the inhuman acts committed to
“settle.” In the game, one of the frequenters of the brothel tells you he has been diagnosed with melancholia (“Doesn’t exist,” snaps Christian Bale’s character early on) and that he’s been treating it with whisky and Ruby, one of the girls.
I remember asking my mother what melancholia was, and when she said it was an old term for depression I asked about that. She said it was a disease were you were sad and couldn’t get happy, and I asked if it was contagious, like chickenpox. “Not between people, no,” she said, but then she got into hereditary issues and predispositions — I asked lots of medical questions, when I was a kid, and I was maybe eight or nine at the time — and off the topic of depression itself. But the Western was still where I first encountered it.
All the most memorable stories of it I encountered on my own, unassigned, were set in the West, I believe. From Breaking Clean to Gilead. And I suppose the sadness in all of those stories and people swam on undercurrents of violence. If not in the people themselves, then in the land, and the memory of what people had done upon it.
One of the best scenes in Hostiles is near the end, when Joe has lost everything, and is sitting in a meadow shot through with bars of sunlight slanting through bordering trees, aglow with the floating puffs of some germinating plant. It is striking in the same way Judy Blunt found eastern Montana to be, as she slowly unravelled on its plains: the land is beautiful, and it gives not one damn about whether you live or die, virtuously or in ruin, upon it.
We, however, have to care.