“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”
— Ernest Hemingway
Veteran cavalry sergeant Tommy Metz stands in the Montana mud, a drenching nighttime rain sluicing down on his bare head, beading in his thick, black beard. Captain Joe Blocker tells him gently to get into his tent, before he freezes.
Sgt. Metz peers to the inky sky above, his eyes blinking against the downpour. His voice is soft, dead.
“I don’t feel anything.”
Sgt. Metz, like every character in Scott Cooper’s Western Hostiles, is traumatized. In his day, they called it “Soldier’s Heart.” Today, he would likely be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Captain Blocker, too, is traumatized. As the tale begins, on an Army outpost on the high desert of New Mexico, he coldly tells a smug and condescending Harper’s Weekly correspondent that he has “a warbag of reasons” to hate the Indians he has spent the past 20 years fighting. He has seen friends die horribly at their hands; he describes the slaughter of fellow fighting men at the hands of Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk and his Dog Soldiers:
“There wasn’t enough left of those poor men to fill a slop pail.”
The intensity of his rage at being ordered to escort that same Chief Yellow Hawk — now “ate up with the cancer” — to Montana to die on his home ground is palpable.
Thus is set in motion a journey across a magnificent landscape into a heart of darkness. For trauma is heaped upon trauma in this bleak, sad — yet ultimately redemptive — tale that reminds us that the conquest of the American West (and all frontiers) came at a searing cost to just about everybody.
The native peoples lost everything — land, freedom, even identity. And the men who took it from them saw and did things they could never un-see or un-do. Throughout Hostiles, the veteran soldiers remind each other that they have killed not only warriors, but women and children, too. They are all killers, and saying “I did my job” is no salve to the moral injury that has crept into their bones as insidiously and as fatally as the cancer eating at Yellow Hawk.
And the trauma is not reserved for men. The central figure of Rosalie Quaid is a study in the worst kind of horror that can befall a woman. The sound of her gasping, keening grief makes the skin crawl. It hurts.
The violence of “Hostiles” is, by contemporary standards, not particularly graphic. But there is something in the way writer/director Cooper handles it — the implied ferocity— that makes it especially harrowing and unsettling.
Hostiles, like all Westerns, is not really dealing in history. The verisimilitude is there; the clothing, accouterments and weaponry are true to time and place, and I’ve never seen an Army outpost of the late frontier period portrayed as accurately. The film looks like a Frederick Remington painting brought to life. But “Hostiles” is dealing in Myth — not in the sense of something that is false, but in the other, grander meaning, the one that recognizes Myth as the stories a people tell to explain and culturally understand nature, history and the way humans behave.
In that way, “Hostiles” tells a truth about the frontier experience. While it played out across a glorious landscape, and represented freedom and opportunity the likes of which ordinary people had not seen before in history, it was terribly, terribly hard on people’s humanity.
Interpersonal conflict and violence was actually the least of it, though when it came it was often savage in the extreme. But just ordinary day-to-day living could kill you. Accident and disease took off far more pioneers and Indians than warfare ever did. A parent in that time and place would almost certainly lose at least one child, and many was the man who lost babe and wife both in the throes of childbirth.
An injury that got infected could mean a gruesome death sentence.
The people that lived once upon the land we now find a beautiful playground suffered deep trauma in its loss, in its taking, in its holding. And yet they persevered.
And in depicting that perseverance — in the face of unimaginable loss, pain and fear — Hostiles is ultimately redemptive. For it is the practice of kindness amid carnage, human connection amid conflict and horror, that enable those who can to survive and retain their humanity.
Not everyone makes it. The very good and the very bad are taken impartially. But those who do make it … they are, indeed, strong at the broken places.