There’s genuine beauty, complexity and power on display in the melancholic new Western epic Hostiles, starring Christian Bale. It’s scripted and directed by Scott Cooper, who earlier made Out of the Furnace with Bale and Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges.
Deadly serious and earnest, set in the American West in 1892 and adapted from an unpublished manuscript by screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (The Hunt for Red October), the film gives Bale a showpiece role as the embittered, emotionally remote Capt. Joe Blocker, celebrated and infamous for his bigoted, unrepentant brutality toward Native Americans. The 20-year career soldier Blocker, about to retire, gets assigned by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison to transport a long-imprisoned, dying Cheyenne tribal chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi in a sterling performance) and his family (Adam Beach, Xavier Horsechief, Tanaya Beatty). The journey takes Blocker—assisted by a handful of fellow white, youthful soldiers—from New Mexico back to the chief’s sacred ancestral burial grounds in Montana.
It would be an understatement to call the long, hard trek abhorrent to Blocker, a man who has spent decades losing his men to slaughter, and who firmly believes God is on his side because God, of course, is always and only on the side of white men. Blocker is reputed to have taken “more scalps than Sitting Bull himself.” Besides, he and Yellow Hawk, whom he commands to be chained for the journey, are old sworn enemies with a shared history of bloodshed and cruelty toward each other in combat. But honor and a pension are at stake, so Blocker unwillingly must accept the president’s charge.
It’s a tough slog at 2 hours and 7 minutes, but Cooper has rebounded beautifully from the disarray of his previous gangster movie, Black Mass.
Not surprisingly, the bleak and gut-wrenchingly brutal way ahead is marked by more slaughter, more blood and Cooper’s admirable insistence on accounting for the ugliness behind legendary figures, let alone to rage against the genocidal underpinnings of America’s history. Sort of like what Kevin Costner did in Dances With Wolves, only without the finger-wagging and preaching that helped make it a simplistic hit with audiences.
The procession encounters a grief-ravaged farmer’s wife named Rosalie (a stunning Rosamund Pike perfomance), the sole survivor of an attack by rogue Comanches that left her without a husband and three children, and left their homestead in ash and cinders. Pike, who was robbed of an Oscar for Gone Girl, delivers more brilliance here. Try watching and listening to what she brings to the line, “Sometimes, I envy the finality of death,“ without appreciating how effective she is.
To save herself, the traumatized Rosalie accepts Blocker’s invitation and allies with the fellow travelers. But she, along with Yellow Hawk’s daughter, played by Q'orianka Kilcher (Bale’s Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World), come to peril and jeopardy, triggering even more bloodshed, with agony and despair to follow and with few purportedly “good” characters worth rooting for. Bale’s and Studi’s characters slowly begin to thaw as they fight a common enemy–the Comanche warriors who dog their every move.
It’s a tough slog at 2 hours and 7 minutes, but Cooper has rebounded beautifully from the disarray of his previous gangster movie, Black Mass. He’s fashioned a revisionist Western that avoids many of the built-in traps but one–the Indians are not only noble, but they are also underwritten.
Still, there is so much to admire here. Cooper movie regular, the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, makes the untouched landscapes–dense forests, prairies, grasslands—look suitably mythic and magnificent in widescreen. Heightened by Max Richter’s magisterial score, the visuals are fit for a John Ford movie like Stagecoach and The Searchers.
In fact, Hostiles deliberately parallels director Ford’s masterful The Searchers, both thematically (will Bale’s character surmount his racism the way John Wayne’s character does?) and visually (lots of characters are framed by door openings). The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Blocker’s posse of soldiers played by Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Majors, Timothée Chalamet and the absolute standout, Rory Cochrane. There is also strong work from a villainous Ben Foster in a hateful role that doesn’t get the payoff it deserves.
Cooper’s reach may exceed his grasp with Hostiles, which is never as incisive or as profound as it often wants to be. But he’s made a movie that once again says that America can never come to terms with its divisive and hate-filled present unless it finally faces its divisive and hate-filled past.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.