Hostiles director Scott Cooper, the filmmaker behind the Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace, and Black Mass, is a director that always seems to make movies that are on the cusp of something great. He has this dark, grim, and deliberate pace to his films that really draw you into their world with stories that feel like a draft or two away from being the great movie that they could be. Hostiles might be Cooper’s best work yet and the closest he has come to making a movie that is great. Hostiles is a punishing and dour film, but it is also a beautiful meditation on the violence of the old west. The movie really explores the treatment that Native Americans faced from “the white man”. What holds this movie back from the greatness that it is close to achieving is how underutilized the Native American characters are and some uneven storytelling decisions. It is a bit frustrating for this movie not to be great but still works as a good movie.
Hostiles take place in the year 1892 in New Mexico. The frontier and the old west is beginning to show signs of fading. A Captain (Christian Bale) in the America military is forced by his commanding officer and the President of the United States (in a nice PR move) to escort a Cheyenne chief and his family back to his homelands to die a peaceful death.
Over the course of the story, the Captain, Joe Blocker, is confronted with reminders of his history of violence against the Native American people. His deep hatred of their people is tested on this journey across the landscape to Montana.
Hostiles very much fall into the vein of the “revisionist western” (that began in the 1960s) and also feels very comfortable in this post-Unforgiven era of western. Hostiles and director Scott Cooper clearly knows the roots of the classical western with some clear nods and homages to John Ford and John Wayne. The Searchers is a clear inspiration (but then again how many westerns don’t nod to that film?). The classical era nods are done with some subversion and twists.
Hostiles is a movie that is really looking at the west as a whole and particularly the classic cowboys vs Indians trope. This is a movie that has a lot to say about the continuous cycle of endless violence that the west seems to breed. Christian Bale’s Joseph goes on a journey where everything he encounters is a reminder and a part of the PTSD of the horrible things he has done in the name of his job. This movie isn’t about his redemption but more about the burden of realization and coming to an understanding.
The movie is more of an episodic adventure with one end goal connecting it all together. At one point, Joseph has to also escort another prisoner (played by Ben Foster) who isn’t all that different from him. They are on the run from other Native Americans hunting them and they come across a frontierswoman, Rosalie (played by Rosamund Pike). Rosalie plays a big part in the movie, and in the opening minutes of the film, we see a vicious attack on her home that leads her down her own journey alongside Joseph.
Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike both give two excellent performances. Bale’s understated performance is quietly powerful. We know Bale can scream, yell and play big in his roles, but here he wisely dials it back. The years of pain doesn’t need to be explained by Bale, he wears it on his face. This is Christian Bale at some of his best.
Director Scott Cooper paired with cinematography Masanobu Takayanagi creates an absolutely beautiful film. The beautiful nature of the movie is a perfect juxtaposition against the movie’s unrelenting darkness. This is a world that feels dangerous. This really was the frontier and the frontier was brutal. Almost everything that is expected of a The shootouts are, quick, violent, and intense. The gun battles in the movie are not elaborate or over the top like last year’s Antoine Fuqua’s entertaining Magnificent Seven but are none the less well executed. Cooper also enlisted the work of composer Max Richter whose haunting score helps elevate the entire movie.
Still, Hostiles is not perfect and not quite great. The biggest issue this movie faces is the Native American characters. No, Hostiles isn’t a modern-day Birth of a Nation or anything close to that sort, the characters simply feel undeveloped and not given the time to be as rich as Bale and Pike’s characters. The performances by the actors playing them are all good (Wes Studi being the obvious standout), but they aren’t given much of a personality. I feel even if there were just a few more scenes of Joseph and the Chief, Yellow Hawk, conversing, this would have really improved the movie. The themes of the movie relate to the Native American characters so they need to be dimensional characters.
Think back to Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Dances With Wolves takes great effort to develop the Native American characters. The movie is focused on Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar but everyone around him, all the Native Americans, felt like fully formed characters. Hostiles does a great job with most of the characters except the Native American characters. The movie is focused on Joe which is fine (Dances with Wolves is about Dunbar) but the Native Americans don’t get the attention they deserve. Without those scenes of development, Hostiles feels a bit hollow in certain areas despite how great it is in all these other aspects and having big ideas.
Hostiles isn’t the next Unforgiven or even the next True Grit (I am referring to the 2010 remake). It isn’t going to be the next classic, but it is comfortable in that second tier of films that are made well enough and will have a group of people that enjoy it. Hostiles isn’t a movie for everyone; this is a very serious and slower moving movie and the lack of strong characterization of the Native American characters does dent this movie. But, if you’re a longtime fan of the Western genre, as I am, then I think you will probably really appreciate it. Hostiles has a lot of big ideas, and while it doesn’t execute all of them, this has more than enough emotional resonance and character work to make this movie worth seeing. Just don’t expect it to be the masterpiece that the movie clearly thinks it is.