Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike
Running time: 135 minutes
1892. In the southerly state of New Mexico, Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) is tasked with escorting a dying Native American Chief (Studi) and his family north into Montana. Danger lurks at every turn; but, with prejudices and previous run-ins rife in the memory, the biggest threat might just come from within the party itself.
“Understand” Christian Bale’s Captain Blocker resolutely states early in Scott Cooper’s sweeping western odyssey, “when we lay our heads down out here, we are all prisoners.” It’s a damming statement that forebodes a tale of violence, brutality, moral ambiguity, and gruelling journeys. Tough but tender, Hostiles is an engrossing, enthralling watch; beautifully shot; wonderfully scored; and underpinned by an astounding Christian Bale performance.
The film’s opening D.H. Lawrence quote, “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer” quickly rings harrowingly true. Within Hostiles’ first five minutes, the remote homestead of Rosalie Quaid (Pike) is razed to the ground and her husband and young children mercilessly slaughtered at the hands of Comanche warriors. Meanwhile, Blocker rounds up, torments, and imprisons an Apache family at the remote Fort Berringer. The foundation of Cooper’s moral battlefield – one shrouded in thick grey – is established instantaneously, with atrocities committed on both sides lending themselves to the film’s apposite and heavily ambiguous title.
From there, Coopers’ powerful narrative starts to take shape. The army receives strict orders from President Harrison, and Blocker reluctantly accepts the task assigned to him: to escort his cancer-stricken nemesis, Chief Yellow Hawk, and his family to the Valley of the Bears in Montana – the spiritual home of his tribe – to die peacefully. En route, the detail picks up the grieving Quaid who, initially overwhelmed by loss and apprehensive of the travelling Cheyenne, soon finds inner strength and sympathy towards them after a series of violent altercations with vicious Comanche and less-than-honourable fur-trappers. In borrowing from the classic Westerns of old – namely Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – Hostiles is a film of journeys. As one might expect, however, not all journeys here are physical.
Amidst such thematic threads, Hostiles also weaves an unflinchingly brutal, blood-soaked snapshot of the American West. Cooper’s period piece is an ethical wasteland, where characters are simply products of the violence and warped sense of duty that permeated the time. Barbarity exists everywhere throughout Cooper’s tale, and even at a time of wars-end, stories of savagery still hang heavy in the air. And no one embodies the dwindling era more than Blocker himself.
Hardened by the atrocities he has witnessed, he is an embittered military man who wears his hatred for the Natives firmly on his sleeve: a deep abhorrence felt for no one more so than Studi’s stoic Yellow Hawk – the man Blocker holds responsible for the murder of many of his friends – and his family (a “brood of bastards and bitches” as Blocker puts it). Along with war-weary fellow soldier Master Sergeant Thomas Metz (played with understated sobriety by Rory Cochrane), Blocker is a man wedded to his military duty; a life that has long since stripped him of his moral compass, leaving behind only embedded grudges and a longing for the “good old days” of battle, now but a distant memory.
Bale is no stranger to the Western, of course. Along with co-star Ben Foster – who shows up here as an incarcerated former acquaintance of Blocker – he starred in James Mangold’s underrated 2007 remake of the classic 3:10 to Yuma (a narrative which Hostiles clearly draws inspiration from). But here – his second collaboration with Cooper after 2013’s Out of the Furnace – Bale turns in arguably his finest, and most complex, performance to date.
As the one might predict, the trials and tribulations of the journey inevitably bring Native and Cavalryman closer together; and as such, perspectives begin to change, surrogate families start to form, and the slow-burning embers of respect between the enemies the years of war has forced them to be start to ignite.
And it’s during such moments of quieter, more subtle poignancy that Cooper’s film really elevates itself to one of the finest in the genre this side of the 21st century. For large periods, Hostiles (based on a story by Donald E. Stewart) is a patient and richly novelistic film – those expecting an all-guns-blazing two-hour shootout will be disappointed – that depicts the final breaths of a decaying existence and a time of endings, aftermath, and reflection. Death remains more prevalent than life, and burials – both literal and figurative – more commonplace than anything that resembles redemption.
Provocative and powerful, Hostiles is a masterfully dense narrative, and a visual and aural masterpiece. Spearheaded by a brilliant Bale, Cooper’s epic is as pertinent as it is historical – looking forward as much as it looks back.