Scott Cooper's western, Hostiles, starts at a U.S. army outpost in New Mexico, where Captain Joseph Blocker, played by Christian Bale, is ordered to escort a Cheyenne chief to his ancestral land in Montana.
Chief Yellow Hawk had been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years for committing atrocities during the Indian Wars. Now dying of cancer, the chief is Blocker's mortal enemy. His orders come from "back East" in Washington, D.C., in reaction to negative press reports about the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. Army. Blocker has to obey.
Defying the order would cost Blocker his pension and reputation. With no choice, he and his unit set out to Montana along with the ailing chief and his family.
Like many Westerns, Hostiles is a journey story throwing together a group of people from different backgrounds. But the narrative emphasizes the reconciliation of two mortal enemies, Bale's Blocker, and Chief Yellow Hawk, played by acclaimed Native American actor Wes Studi.
In an interview with VOA, Studi described the changing relationship as "not a full-blown reconciliation but simply a matter of having a common foe -- not only the Comanche but the weather, the land, the robbers, or the fur traders."
Bale offers a powerful performance as a U.S. Army captain legendary for his merciless attacks against the natives. Yet, his character is full of quiet dignity and stoic resolution.
Bale says Hostiles departs from the old Western trope of cowboys versus bad Indians.
In Cooper's Hostiles, everyone is capable of atrocities in a fight for survival in an inhospitable landscape. The landscape is majestic, but also terrifying, desolate and threatening.
"For me, there is a horror element to this," says Bale. "There is this kind of imprisonment that certainly, I can say, my character is feeling and at the same time, the absolute beauty of this landscape and of America, but how it could be absolutely horrific at the same time when you had so many friends die for this land."
Some critics question Cooper's tale, accusing it "of aggrandizing a white man's conscience and using Yellow Hawk and his family as vehicles for Blocker's social and spiritual awakening."
Studi, an actor and an activist, says though such alliances between whites and Indians as the film shows did exist, they never quite bridged the deep divide between the two races.
Even today, he says, Native Americans feel displaced by losing lands to oil and mineral extraction.
"Well, they've always been under threat. And now I think what's happening is that the larger American public is beginning to feel what we felt back in the day, when genocide was the practice and colonialization was actually what was practiced," Studi says. "Now that we have these public lands that are being taken over on a local level for unspoken but we know what the reason is, I think that the American public is beginning to feel the kinds of things that we felt over the ages."
Studi says the positive tone of the film is cathartic for audiences, but adds that Native Americans will not "forget what they endured in the hands of the whites."
"I don’t know that there is any way or even any reason to forgive," he says, "except for one's own mental stability perhaps. But it's something, I think, any native American has an idea of what history has produced for us over the years, we will hold a grudge I think, I have no problem with saying that and I think we have every right to do so."
Asked about the message his character Chief Yellow Hawk is conveying, Studi says, "It was really a challenge to play and it also opened up thoughts about how does one perceive the world and himself at a time when it's obvious that you are soon going to die.
"You only have a limited amount of time and what in the world goes through the mind of someone who knows this? Your thoughts go to legacy, you begin to think what it is you want to do before you die?" he says.
Studi wants Native Americans to start taking charge of their own narrative. He compares Native American filmmakers, screenwriters and actors to teenagers, who are gradually coming of age in mainstream Hollywood.
"We only have entered this market since perhaps the '60s and that gives us 40 or 50 years of having made an effort to become a part of this industry and we've begun to train ourselves, began to learn what it takes to work in this industry and now we are getting to the point that we are actually talking about how to really tell our own stories and how to go about funding them and how to actually, be able to tell and sell a story to the world about who we are and it's always gratifying to know that young people are becoming more interested in doing the same thing that we've been trying to achieve for a number of years," he says.
That is, finding their own voice.