Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet
Genre : Adventure/Drama/Western
Run Time : 2h 14m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC-16
Over years and years of westerns, it’s been ingrained in popular culture that ‘Cowboys = good, Indians = bad’. While there have been several films in the past that have attempted to redress this balance, there have been far from enough, and Native American history is often misinterpreted, glossed over or otherwise done a disservice in Hollywood movies. Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper’s take on this.
It is 1892, and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is about to retire from the military, receives his final mission, by order of President Harrison. Blocker is to escort the elderly Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland of Bear Valley, Montana. Also in the party are Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the couple’s son. Many of Blocker’s men had died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, hence Blocker’s resistance in aiding Chief in any way.
Along the way, Blocker and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was brutally murdered by Comanche warriors. Rosalie joins Blocker and company, but the road to Montana will not be a smooth one. Along the way, they must brave attacks from warring tribes, fend off avaricious fur trappers, and escort treacherous prisoner Philip Wills (Ben Foster) north. Blocker must try to forgive, or at least tolerate, a man whom he has spent much of his life hating, as each learns to see the other’s point of view.
Hostiles is based on an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, which Cooper has adapted for the screen. This is a downbeat, uncompromisingly brutal film. Given the subject matter, it should be a degree of grave, but Hostiles just wears the audience down, never providing even the briefest moment of levity. One gets the impression that the film functions more as a political statement than as a story. Its heart is in the right place, but there is still considerable nuance left unmined, the result being occasionally clumsy.
The characters are fleshed out reasonably well and are given dialogue that is never painfully on-the-nose. They are all weighed down by something or another, and while there are moments that approach poignancy, Hostiles often feels more like a slog than an involving, powerful drama.
Christian Bale has repeatedly proven over his career that he’s a dab hand at playing the tortured hero. Blocker is someone whose hatred of Native Americans is deep-seated and intertwined with painful events from his past. We see that despite how Blocker has hardened his heart, he is still capable of great empathy and compassion, which he directs towards Rosalie. This is an expectedly intense performance from a famously intense actor, but the character’s arc is all too predictable.
Pike’s portrayal of a woman who has barely survived an unthinkable trauma and is now at her breaking point is heart-rending and wince-inducing in the right ways. It can be argued that Rosalie has the most compelling personal arc in the film, and it’s a role that Pike bites into. However, we know it won’t be long before the film suggests (at the very least) a romance between Rosalie and Blocker, with this relationship becoming the film’s emotional centre.
While Studi lends a quiet, stern authority to the Yellow Hawk role, the film does not give him equal power to Blocker in deciding the direction of the narrative. The Comanche are depicted as villains, with the Cheyenne as the film’s heroes. The film ostensibly wants to undo the old dichotomy of heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, but still needs ‘savages’ for audiences to root against. Kilcher spends most of the film silent and with her head bowed, and the film would have benefitted from giving the Native American characters more agency in the narrative.
The supporting roles are all inhabited with sufficient authenticity, but as with many films of this type, Hostiles struggles to make Blocker’s men seem distinct. Rory Cochrane conveys a distant hauntedness, Blocker shares a sincere, tearful moment with his right-hand man Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and Ben Foster gets to play quite the scoundrel, but the motley crew isn’t sufficiently memorable.
Even as it unfolds against sweeping landscapes and features actors giving the material their best, Hostiles feels considerably longer than its 135 minutes. While it’s clear that the film is made with noble intentions, its still encumbered by certain trappings of the Western genre, and doesn’t the deliver the depth which it promises.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars