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.
Hostiles, like many other westerns, opens with an action sequence. Specifically, a group of Comanche warriors attack a peaceful homestead in a New Mexico valley, murdering all residents except one, Rosamund Pike’s Rosalie Quaid. The slaughter of the family is unflinching and intense, and starts the movie off with a real bang. However, there is far more to this opening sequence that would be expected from your usual, by-the-numbers western.
The opening shot says it all: a lone house, dwarfed by the valley from which the Comanches emerge. This is not simply a movie about Cowboys vs Indians; it’s a movie about man’s struggle in a new world, and the violence that such a struggle necessitates. This becomes even clearer in the second scene, where we see the tables turned as American soldiers torture native Apaches. Adorned in their Union uniforms, they are not there to terrorise the natives – though they do take pleasure in doing so – they are there to ‘civilise’ the land. However, they are incapable of separating the land from its inhabitants, and thus turn their violence towards them.
This theme of man vs frontier is perpetuated throughout the film in a number of subtle ways. One particular shot, taken from above the hills, captures not only the beautiful vista of open country, but also the soldiers as they make their way through the mountains. This gives the impression that the soldiers, tiny in perspective, are being watched by a force far greater than them, and that they are vulnerable, not only because of the threat of the Comanches, but also because the hills themselves are observing their passage.
The story through which this theme presents itself is a simple one. Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort dying Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana. On the way he meets Rosalie Quaid, terribly shaken from her ordeal at the start of the movie. From there, he acts as both bodyguard, warden, and captain of his unit, as he and his company try to fulfil their duty.
It is through this journey that the two sides of the man vs frontier battle meet, and Blocker, who begins the movie hating the natives with every inch of his being, starts to realise that his previous acts of violence may have caused more harm than good, and that the violence now necessary for survival may have been triggered by the actions of his countrymen. This realisation leads Blocker to attempt to regain his own humanity by giving the natives theirs.
Christian Bale plays this character masterfully, and though there is not a single bad performance in the entire movie, he stands head and shoulders above the rest. This is partly due to the excellent writing gone into creating such a layered and human character, and partly due to Bale’s exquisite ability to say a lot while speaking very little.
Despite the brilliant acting, clever cinematography, and a consistent, pervasive atmosphere, Hostiles has its fair amount of pacing problems. Personally, I have a soft spot for slow-burners, and Hostiles is certainly a slow-burner (even in spite of its dramatic opening scene) but there were moments when even I felt the movie’s snail’s pace detract from its quality. The constant repetition of holding important conversations over dimly lit campfires gets monotonous and although the conversations themselves are often important or irreplaceable, the choice to have them all occur in what is essentially the same setting is frankly boring.
Fortunately, out of Hostiles 135-minute run time, only fifteen minutes would need to be shaved to streamline it. Moreover, between its lulls, Hostiles manages to be incredibly entertaining, even when it is also haunting.
If you’re a fan of neither westerns nor slow-burners, Hostiles will definitely not be for you. However, if you have the patience to endure an overly-long act two, then you’ll be rewarded with plenty of substance to sink your teeth into.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor