In Hostiles, Our Worst Enemies Are Also Our Neighbors
When you watch a movie like Hostiles, you expect to feel uncomfortable. Stories (as I’ve written about before) often make us see ourselves more clearly, and considering that the subject matter of Scott Cooper’s western-drama is human depravity, it’s not necessarily a film one might race to see. Set on the shrinking frontier of 1892, Hostiles sets its gaze on the volatile racial tensions between pioneers and Native Americans as battles for land and the desire to scratch out a living collide. The tagline of the film is, “We are all Hostiles,” and in the opening sequences, the movie seems bent on enforcing this premise. The film’s brutality crosses ethnic and tribal lines, with men often seeming little better than beasts.
Depending on your feelings about your own virtue, you might be tempted to think this story doesn’t have much to say to you personally. It’s a hard narrative to digest, and objections abound as to why you could avoid a viewing experience like this (or at least only view it as mere entertainment): Why can’t we all just get along? Racism doesn’t really exist anymore like that, does it? That was then — we’re more sophisticated now. Yet this approach misses a vital goal of the film. While stories undoubtedly entertain, they also instruct, and in this regard, Hostiles is an important and timely movie.
On a more narrow scope, Hostiles is the story of two dying protagonists. Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (played by Wes Studi) is “eaten up with the cancer” — his predicament setting the gears of the narrative in motion. Due to his failing state, the aging warrior receives a presidential pardon for his “butchery” (as it’s phrased) to return to his tribal lands in Montana and die in peace. The man ordered to escort him is legendary army captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale). Joe and Yellow Hawk are arch-nemeses from long years of war — each responsible for committing atrocities against, and killing friends of, the other. Joe, too, is a butcher of men, famous for taking more scalps than Yellow Hawk himself. It’s not as easy to see, but Joe is also dying — not of a physical cancer, but of a spiritual one. His hatred toward Yellow Hawk acts as a disease so severe he is almost incapable of carrying out the order to escort the chief and his family to Montana.
Perhaps we don’t have arch-nemeses like Joe Blocker, or a “war bag full of reasons” to hate an entire people group, as he says he does in the film, but just by virtue of being human, our natural state toward each other is hostility.
As the film so vividly portrays, this is what hatred toward our fellow human beings does to us: it gnaws at our flesh, eating us from the inside out. It refuses to allow us to view other image bearers as anything but hostiles. Early in the film, as Joe is escorting a “catch” of Apaches into a fort, one of his fellow soldiers sees the inhumane way the Native American family is being treated. “It ought not to be this way, Joe,” he says. Joe swiftly replies, “Is there a better way?”
This is the question that hangs in the air throughout the movie: Is there a better way? And if so, what is it, and how do we achieve it?
There is a better way, but to know what it is, we must be willing to acknowledge that even our natural enemies are our neighbors. Jesus teaches us this principle in the Book of Luke. “Who is my neighbor?” a lawyer asks the famous teacher.
It’s an important question. You see, Jesus just finished telling this lawyer that if he loved his neighbor as himself, he would live. Live, not die. To identify who our neighbors are is pretty important if loving them as ourselves is second only to the Greatest Commandment of loving God.
And for Joe Blocker, a man dying from a cancer of hatred, this is the answer he must find, as well, if he is to live. Who is his neighbor? Who is his friend? Can he identify the festering hatred within his own heart before it’s too late?
Perhaps we don’t have arch-nemeses like Joe Blocker, or a “war bag full of reasons” to hate an entire people group, as he says he does in the film, but just by virtue of being human, our natural state toward each other is hostility. Christian theology teaches that every human is fallen and broken. And this darkness crosses all cultural, tribal, and interpersonal boundaries alike. History proves that each one of us — both individually and corporately — will find someone else to treat as hostile. No matter how “enlightened” our modern society thinks it is, we return to this rut. The 20th century, despite its technological and human advancement, was the deadliest in human history, and the more we progress, the more we develop ways to kill and foment hatred against each other.
The great irony of Joe Blocker’s character is that he likely considers himself fairly “enlightened,” for his time, and despite his open revilement of Native Americans, it’s doubtful he would call himself a racist. Among the choice men in his guard is an African American corporal named Henry Woodsen (played by Jonathan Majors). In post–Civil War America, not many white captains would offer a black man the chance to serve as an equal, let alone form a bond of brotherly love with him (as Joe forms with Henry). The brotherhood that exists between Joe and Henry throws shades of nuance onto the racial tensions and themes in the story. Can we love one neighbor, but not the other?
Just as important, Joe must understand the darkness within his own heart in order to change. At one point, a soldier convicted of murder says to Joe: “You’ve […] done a lot worse than me. I’m just asking for mercy.” The guilty man acts as a mirror for Joe — and a stinging indictment. Blocker can’t begin to love his enemy until he is able to see that he too is an enemy.
If you’re familiar with the text of Luke 10, you know that Jesus answers the question of “Who is my neighbor?” with the parable of the Good Samaritan. At its heart, this is a story of two men naturally hostile toward each other, and the one who chose to set aside that hostility to extend an unearned, undeserved hand of friendship to the other — to say, “You are not my enemy, but my neighbor, and I will treat you as I would want to be treated.”
This reconciliation cannot ever be perfect without the atoning work of Christ, and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” means much more than to care simply for their earthly well-being, but also for the salvation of their souls. The parable is a call to action for humanity. Samaritan. Jew. Black. White. Native American. Male. Female. We are all hostiles because we are fallen and depraved, but we are called to be neighbors, and that is a better way.
If humanity was inherently good, we could all live and let live. But we are all fallen and desperately wicked, and that is why a movie like Hostiles strikes such a resonant chord in its audiences. This is not a movie about strangers who lived 120 years ago. This is a movie about us. We are all hostiles. The tagline is true.
The process of going from hostiles to neighbors is rarely easy, not in real life or in the film. From the first blood-drenched scene with Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), to the final, tragic showdown, we want a simple route. But the wages of sin is death, and the illustration of this principle in Hostiles is stark and bloody and brutal. For how costly our sin is — do we think reconciliation costs any less? Yet thanks be to the Lord that, when we trust in him, we don’t have to be prisoners to our hostility any longer.