Directed by Scott Cooper.
Starring Christian Bale, Rosamond Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Q’orianka Kilcher, Rory Cochrane, Bill Camp, John Benjamin Hickey, Tanaya Beatty, Jonathan Majors, Scott Wilson, Peter Mullan, David Midthunder, Paul Anderson, Ryan Bingham, and Stephen Lang.
In 1892, a legendary Army captain reluctantly agrees to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family through dangerous territory.
With both The Ballad of Lefty Brown and now Hostiles releasing only a few weeks apart from one another it seems that the Western is pleasantly undergoing a slight revival, but if either of these films impact the current cinematic landscape in any shape or form it will assuredly be the latter due to its central themes of forgiveness, inclusion, and acceptance by way of understanding. Hostiles opens with a gruesome family butchering conducted by a savage group of Native Americans, except director Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart) isn’t interested in painting the indigenous people solely as cut and dry villains. Similarly is the representation of Americans, specifically Caucasians, as some are just as despicable.
Adapted from an original story by Donald E Stewart, Hostiles focuses on accomplished and decorated war general Joseph Blocker (a stoic Christian Bale simmering with conflicting thoughts of hateful anger and newfound enlightenment) who is tasked by his superiors (and President Benjamin Harrison no less) with escorting a once bloodthirsty Cheyenne chief (now coughing sickly and diagnosed with cancer), and his family, from Fort Berringer of New Mexico to their homeland in Montana to live out his final breaths peacefully. Joe’s unwavering disdain for Native Americans inherently complicates the assignment, but further placing him between a rock and a hard place is the fact that this particular chief dubbed Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi, not necessarily living up to the violent reputation of the war criminal, much more full of wisdom and sage-like advice in his dying days) is directly responsible for the death of some of Joe’s most trusted and close comrades.
Cue the overdramatic scene of Christian Bale screaming at the top of his lungs (vocals muted and replaced with a booming dramatic score) in the middle of nowhere to illustrate his frustrations from being given orders that betray his creed. Thankfully, the character and Bale’s performance is not that showy, as once he reluctantly agrees and takes forth an assembled team of squadmates (ranging from longtime buddies that reminisce about the good old days to inexperienced but capable greenies) he’s all about business and getting the job done. That is until the traveling band come across a mother grieving for her husband and children (hauntingly clutching a dead baby in her arms) murdered at the hand of the aforementioned savages.
It’s here where the relations between various characters morph, as the Cheyanne tribe offers assistance to help with incoming threats and danger, not surprisingly met with initial untrustworthiness from Joseph. However, the pain radiating from Rosalie (Rosamund Pike delivers some of her best work demonstrating the manic shock that comes from sudden loss, and how it tips the scales on someone’s behalf mentally) is enough for enemies to set aside differences and work together as mutuals. Additionally, considering that Roaslie is the one bringing these heated rivals together, it’s absolutely plausible to say that the intended themes don’t resonate unless her performance is as good as it is; her character arc is exactly the one driving everyone’s personal development forward. There are quiet moments where Rosalie and Joseph discuss the existence of God along with His presence during what has been happening throughout the lands, and it’s hard not to come under the impression that the more they bond Joseph softens up, slowly coming to a realization that the times are changing, and the fact that Americans historically haven’t been the kindest to Native Americans and have provoked much of the conflict.
With that said, Scott Cooper continues to throw in new plot elements that seem designed to break Joseph and his newly adopted beliefs, namely with the introduction of a criminal/friend that also must be transported across the country (Ben Foster) who is wholly disgusted at what Joseph is becoming. The dialogue exchanges between them are fine and well-acted, yet actually feel superfluous to the narrative as a whole. It’s understandable that while he was mostly always doing his job as a soldier, Joseph isn’t necessarily the kindest or most reasonable person in the world, so we don’t need an even bigger asshole to further expand on the idea that anyone can be hostile. It’s all too on the nose. Expanding on that, Joseph is given one-on-one time with many of the other soldiers, although it doesn’t amount to anything considering that the characters are all relatively basic aside from him and Rosalie. Furthermore, they all deal with really conventional themes of desensitization to killing that would be far more interesting with more defined personalities. Ultimately, it just takes away from what’s compelling and inflates the running time upwards to over two hours.
Hostiles is still an engrossing Western, filled to the brim with picturesque scenery and environments (there are dustbowl barren landscapes along with grassy forests) that look all the more beautiful whenever characters stop on their horses and survey the sights. Scott Cooper frames this in a number of beautiful ways, including some wide shots that accurately capture the enticing visual qualities of the frontier. Even in motion with horses galloping all over the place during battle and pistols being fired in every direction, the action is largely decipherable and never unwieldy, although one particular sequence contains a few too many quick-cuts that disrupt the flow. The story may not reach its ambitious expectations, but it still comes through with grit, violence, and serviceable acting from all involved. Hostiles is one of the better Westerns to be released in quite some time, and one that manages to find social relevance even if the characters aren’t as deep as the film believes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com