In “Hell or High Water,” Taylor Sheridan penned one of the best exchanges in recent cinema, a disagreement at a poker table between a native American, Bear, and a cowboy outlaw out-side of his time, Tanner. The dialogue is this:
Bear: “I am a Comanche. Do you know what it means? It means ‘Enemies forever.’”
Tanner: “Enemies with who?”
Tanner: “Do you know what that makes me?”
Bear: “An enemy.”
Tanner: “No, it makes me a Comanche.”
Like Sheridan, writer and director Scott Cooper is committed to an accurate portrayal of native people in “Hostiles,” which continues a trend of new, post-romantic Westerns. The film, set in 1892, begins with a title card featuring a D.H. Lawrence quote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer,” then starts in on the killing.
Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching her children about adverbs when things swiftly turn black. A group of Rattlesnake Comanches comes over the ridge to steal some horses and kill her husband and daughters. Rosalie escapes into the woods, her face locked in a silent shriek that doesn’t break for the rest of the film.
At nearby Ft. Berrigan, U.S. Calvary Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale, doing his best work since “The New World,” if not “Newsies”) is assigned to bring an imprisoned and aging Cheyenne war chief home to die in the Valley of the Bears, Montana. Blocker, veteran of many bloody conflicts with native Americans, refuses to transport the man and his “brood and bitches.” His superior officer points out that Blocker’s no angel himself and leverages the pension that’s promised if he finishes the mission. Thus Bale, framed in dark doorways like John Wayne in “The Searchers,” steps out onto the trail.
For all the talk of his violent ways, Chief Yellow Hawk (a magisterial Wes Studi) is quiet and still as if posing for a cameo, or a death mask — every gesture, every cough is significant. Even as he is being chained to his horse, Yellow Hawk warns that the Rattlesnakes in the area are of unsound mind, but that state seems to apply to all the people in the film beyond his traveling family, which includes his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief).
Blocker’s team is hardscrabble, starting with Master Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochrane), a man diagnosed with melancholia, the emotional endgame for serving as the right hand to Blocker, who claims, “I’ve killed everything that walked or crawled.” Their company is populated with actors doing strong work: “Buffalo Soldier” Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), Lt. Rudy Kidder fresh from West Point (Jesse Plemons), young Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet), and even Sgt. Malloy (Ryan Bingham, who wrote the music for Cooper’s previous feature “Crazy Heart”) as a soldier with a song.
Sergeant Charles Wills (Ben Foster, deliverer of the Comanche line in “Hell or High Water”), is another prisoner to transfer, a disgraced soldier. He is Blocker’s old acquaintance from Wounded Knee and asks some difficult questions on the difference between state-sponsored butchery and individual sadism.
The position the film takes is that we’re all prisoners when we lay our heads down to sleep. The traveling party is enemies to everyone, from soldiers to fur traders to Comanches to ranchers — as in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” there is no one you want to meet on the way. Cooper uses classically-framed extreme long shots to show the sun going down on the company as they trudge across dramatic scenery. Yellow Hawk’s face looms huge in the landscape, as large as the Crazy Horse monument in the dusk light.
‘Hostiles’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 2:15. Visitcinemawest.com.