Hostiles is grim and slow-burn to a fault in its deconstruction of the American West’s violent legacy, but strong performances keep the film on track.
A revisionist western based on an unused manuscript written by the Oscar-winning screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (Missing, The Hunt for Red October) prior to his death in 1999, Hostiles reunites Oscar-winner Christian Bale with his Out of the Furnace director Scott Cooper. The latter made his name as a filmmaker with the 2009 country musician drama Crazy Heart (which landed Jeff Bridges his Academy Award), and further established himself as a storyteller interested in making mood/performance-driven fare with the dramatic thriller Out of the Furnace and Whitey Bulger biopic Black Mass. While Cooper falls short of raising the bar for quality of his own work with Hostiles, it’s a solid effort that feels in harmony with his larger filmmaking oeuvre. Hostiles is grim and slow-burn to a fault in its deconstruction of the American West’s violent legacy, but strong performances keep the film on track.
In the year 1892, Captain Joseph J. “Joe” Blocker (Bale) is a U.S. Cavalry officer who has earned himself quite the dark reputation, having spent many years hunting and killing Native Americans in the U.S. southwest. While based out of Fort Berringer, New Mexico, Joe is ordered by his commanding officer Colonel Abraham Biggs (Stephen Lang) to escort the long imprisoned Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) – a man whom Joe has a personal and bloody history with – to his home in the Valley of the Bears, Montana, now that Yellow Hawk is on the verge of dying from cancer.
Not wanting to lose his Army pension after he retires, Joe reluctantly agrees to escort Yellow Hawk back to his homeland with his family, including his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) and Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher). Early on in their journey, Joe and his fellow travelers then cross paths with one Rosalie Quad (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was attacked and killed by a Comanche party mere days earlier. Concerned for both her physical and mental safety, Joe allows Rosalie to accompany his party on the expedition to Yellow Hawk’s homeland, aware that a rogue pack of Comanche hunters is but one of the many dangers that they must now face.
Much like Out of the Furnace‘s depiction of life in the Rust Belt and Black Mass‘ vision of South Boston, Hostiles‘ stark portrayal of the Old West and morose sense of atmosphere are its greatest strengths. Cooper and his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi (who also worked on the filmmaker’s last two movies) paint a visually striking but harsh and brutal portrait of the scenery here, placing an emphasis on long shots of desolate landscapes and closeups of human anguish in order to create the film’s dismal mood. Hostiles, as indicated earlier, ultimately focuses too much on creating and maintaining its dour mood and tone, at the expense of its character/thematic development and sense of pacing. The end result: Hostiles is a handsomely crafted, long, and intentionally miserable film that feels even longer than it is because it prioritizes mood over narrative depth and momentum.
At the same time, Cooper (who also wrote the screenplay) deserves credit for not providing much in the way of easy resolution and answers in Hostiles. The film could have easily played out as a conventional redemption story for Joe, but it avoids going that route and recognizes that its protagonist’s history of violence – both against others and himself – is complicated and cannot be simply reconciled. Hostiles has less success with its broader exploration of the Old West and the United States’ genocide against the Native Americans, in no small part because Yellow Hawk and his family aren’t afforded the same development as most of the white characters here. Similarly, the late in the game subplot that revolves around Joe agreeing to escort the sergeant-turned criminal Charles Willis (Ben Foster) ultimately distracts from the story and character threads that were already established, more than it enhances them.
Fortunately, Bale and Pike are strong as ever here, and their performances are compelling enough to help carry Hostiles through its rough patches. Joe and Rosalie are both damaged and traumatized people for very different reasons, but the actors behind them make their grief feel palpable, and the connection that forms between them over the course of the narrative all the more believable. While their more dramatically intense scenes have an emotional impact, it’s the smaller touches that Bale and Pike bring to their quieter moments in the film (either together or by themselves) that are more memorable and worthy of recognition.
Studi, Beach, and Kilcher also get their moments to shine in Hostiles, despite their characters’ own emotional journeys coming across as a secondary concern to the film. The same goes for supporting cast members like Foster, as well as character actors Jesse Plemons and Rory Cochrane, who play two of Joe’s longtime fellow officers. Relative newcomer Jonathan Majors in particular stands out with his small role as Corporal Henry Woodson, a Buffalo Soldier who has long served under Joe and accompanies him as he escorts Yellow Hawk. Unfortunately, other supporting players like Lang, Peter Mullan, and Call Me By Your Name breakout Timothée Chalamet end up feeling a bit wasted in their respective roles.
Hostiles started to gain some awards season traction following its premiere on the film festival circuit last year, but has since fallen well behind its more groundbreaking and revolutionary competitors. While the film’s reach exceeds its grasp when it comes to deconstructing the western genre and the real life history that it reflects, Hostiles nevertheless makes for a respectable mood piece, as well as an acting showcase for its main leads. Fans of Cooper’s previous work will want to give this one a look at some point, as will those cinephiles interested in seeing what this film has to add to the larger trend of revisionist westerns released over the past decade.
Hostiles is now playing in a semi-wide U.S. theatrical release. It is 133 minutes long and is rated R for strong violence, and language.
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