Scott Cooper’s moody western is as harsh as frontier whiskey.
It doesn’t take Hostiles long to live up to its name. Within the opening moments, Comanche renegades raid a helpless family of five. They fire an arrow into the father before scalping him and chasing his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) and kids towards the woods. The hostiles gun down all three children including the newborn cradled in its mother’s arms. All alone, Rosalie escapes the slaughter by the skin of her teeth, setting the stage for the type of revenge western we’ve seen countless times before. It’s not until after the title card flashes across the screen that director Scott Cooper, reveals the film’s intentions.
In the next moment, we watch American Cavalry officers harassing their Native American prisoners. The way the men taunt, demean, and degrade their captives may not be as violent as the opening scene but it’s far more savage. Suddenly, a fog lifts and Hostile’s themes present themselves: both sides have blood on their hands but America’s crimes are unconscionable.
Christian Bale plays Joseph J. Blocker, a Calvary officer tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne chief and his family back to their tribal lands. Blocker has spent his career fighting Native Americans and doesn’t hide his hatred for them. It’s only after his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) threatens to deny Blocker his pension that he accepts. Making matters worse, Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is responsible for the death of countless Americans, many of them Blocker’s friends. Blocker is assigned a squad of soldiers and sets out on his reluctant mission to bring Yellow Hawk and his family back home. Shortly after leaving town, the squad comes across a traumatized Rosalie and decides the honorable thing to do is escort her back to safety. As the ragtag group sets off across the American frontier they’re forced to work together in order to survive the deadly encounters laying in wait.
First off, Hostiles is so beautifully shot that it’s almost unfair. Every tilt and pan of the camera expands the scope of Hostile’s stunning world. I found myself leaning forward during establishing shots examining every inch of the screen. Cooper’s cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, makes each image feel majestic. Numerous shots of densely wooded forests and wide-open planes are contenders for One Perfect Shot profiles. I was most impressed with the alien look of the rocky Colorado landscapes. If someone threw a red filter over the camera they could convince me those shots are from Mars. Every scene in Hostiles, ranging from green pastures to dusty cowpoke towns, is immaculately rendered.
The characters in Hostiles have all “seen some things.” They’ve racked up body counts that would make Call of Duty players jealous and Hostiles examines how the past continues to weigh on them. People haven’t changed in the 150 years since the film is set but there’s a huge difference between how we treat our soldiers. Today we recognize shock, PTSD, and all the other anxiety disorders that come with fighting for your life day in and day out. These whiskey swilling men with plump mustaches weren’t privy to therapy, counseling, and medical treatment. They were welcomed back and cast into society unchecked. When one man tells Blocker he’s suffering from “the melancholia,” Blocker snaps back that such a thing doesn’t exist. It becomes clear that the frontier’s cycle of violence can never end with so many broken people out on the front lines.
Bale is an actor that disappears into every role he takes on. Joseph Blocker is as intense of a performance as Bale has ever delivered. Over the years, Blocker has had the humanity wrung out of him and all that’s left inside is a smoldering hatred. You can almost feel the heat coming off his contemptuous gaze which makes it all the more remarkable as we see him “soften” over the course of the film. As time passes, the loathing fueling Blocker’s hatred fades, forcing him to confront his bloodstained past. Few actors could pull off such a complex emotional arc and in doing so, Bale uses every ounce of his considerable talent.
It’s unfortunate that Cooper didn’t provide Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, and Wes Studi more to do. All three have turned in memorable performances when given the opportunity and it’s disappointing to see them relegated to the background for much of the film. Of the three, Studi maximises his limited screen time, imbuing scenes with his soulful presence without needing to say a word.
With Hostiles, Cooper opts to repudiate the notion of the classic American western. Cooper’s take on the wild west dares to imply that those John Wayne classics had moviegoers rooting for the wrong side. Hostiles will be a tough watch for a lot of people. Either because of its brutal depiction of frontier life or for its thematic underpinnings. If you’re not turned off by Hostiles’ willingness to murder children, then you’re in for one of the better westerns in recent years. With an exceptional lead performance by Bale and some of the year’s most stunning cinematography, Hostiles ruff-and-tumble world is worth visiting.