October 2022

Hostiles (2017)

DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper

CAST: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Ben Foster, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane


Hostiles is a grim, downbeat, but ultimately hopeful morality play ruminating on themes of hatred, redemption, and bridging racial divides.  Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass) directs this elegiac “revisionist Western” with a slow, methodical pace that proves challenging to maintain viewers’ attention.  Those seeking serious drama that moves at its own deliberate pace and aren’t expecting something more conventional or action-oriented may appreciate what Cooper has wrought, but it will not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Set in 1892, Hostiles opens with an unflinching sequence that defies expectations about movies shying away from harming small children, as a Comanche raid on a remote homestead results in father and two daughters gunned down and a baby shot in its mother’s arms, leaving only Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) left alive.  From there, we switch to Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale in a one-note mode of glum repression), who has a reputation as one of the US Army’s most merciless Indian fighters, and has now been given the unenviable assignment of escorting Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from captivity back to his native Montana.  In his time, Yellow Hawk was as fearsome a warrior as Blocker, but those days are behind him; he is an old man stricken with cancer and desiring only to die on his home land.  The staunchly anti-Indian Blocker wants no part of this, but after his commanding officer (Stephen Lang) coerces him into it, he reluctantly sets out at the head of a group including Yellow Hawk, his son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), two younger children, and four hand-picked soldiers (Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet, Jonathan Majors) on a long and potentially dangerous journey from New Mexico to Montana.  Along the way, they take in two new additions: the traumatized Rosalie when they stumble across her burned homestead, and a captured deserter and murderer, Philip Wills (Ben Foster), who once served under Blocker and is to be transported to face justice in Montana.

Hostiles is not an action movie.  There are moments of “action” (the opening Comanche raid, a later skirmish between Blocker’s group and the same bandits, and a climactic shootout) but it comes in short, brutal bursts, few and far between, and is not filmed with the intention of creating an adrenaline rush or being entertainment.  Nor does it follow conventional narrative trajectories.  The Comanches and Ben Foster’s Wills are both briefly set up as “villains”, but their subplots aren’t resolved how we might expect, and in low-key, anti-climactic fashion.  Aside from the climax, there’s no big dramatic Western-style shootout, and even that example is more nitty gritty and short and brutal than what we’d get in a more conventional film.  And while there’s a budding connection on some level between Blocker and Rosalie, Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike don’t share a sex scene or even a kiss.  The closest they come to physical intimacy is accepting each other’s comfort (in outwardly platonic fashion) while sharing a tent during a rainstorm.  This is as serious a movie with as dreary and dour a tone as one is likely to find, to an extent that will be off-putting to some viewers (in its Western setting, unglamorized brutality, sluggish deliberate pace, and bleak tone, it is a spiritual cousin to The Revenant and The Proposition).

At its core, Hostiles is a morality play about the redemptive power on one’s soul of letting go of hatred, and bridging divides.  Just as “only Nixon could go to China”, it might take men like Blocker and Yellow Hawk, both notoriously brutal warriors on opposite sides of a long-running conflict, to take the first steps toward peace.  And if they can accomplish it, what excuse does anyone else have?

Hostiles has some laudable intentions and affecting moments (mostly involving Rosamund Pike, and occasionally Wes Studi), but the lethargic pace and dreary tone keeps the characters at a distance (except perhaps Rosalie, in whom we are the most invested, largely because she’s the most outwardly emotional and accessible figure).  Supporting characters like Rory Cochrane’s tormented Metz are fuzzily-developed and thus we don’t feel as much toward them as one suspects we’re supposed to.  Just as the way some plot elements are resolved in anti-climactic fashion, the ending offers a sliver of redemption, catharsis, and hope, but those emotions it evokes aren’t as powerful as they could have been.  Hostiles runs shorter than The Revenant but feels longer (and The Revenant can be fairly accused of a sluggish pace and overlong runtime itself), and there are times when it strains the viewer’s attention.

Christian Bale’s impassive stoicism suits him as the grim, hangdog Blocker, but he has taken his underplaying to extremes, and spending the entire movie in one mode of grim-faced glumness often leaves him playing second fiddle to Rosamund Pike, who gets the movie’s most emotionally charged scenes.  If any character provokes an emotional reaction, it’s likely to be Rosalie.  In at least one scene, in which Rosalie buries her slaughtered family, Pike’s anguish is wrenching, and could put her in consideration for the next crop of Oscar nominees (she was previously nominated for a very different role in 2014’s Gone Girl).  The other most arresting presence is veteran Native American actor Wes Studi, who has few lines but imbues Yellow Hawk with a sense of gravitas and nobility.  Studi is far toned down from such roles as The Last of the Mohicans‘ Magua; in his prime Yellow Hawk was a notorious warrior, but those days are far behind him.  Rory Cochrane and Jesse Plemons (both reunited with Scott Cooper from Black Mass) round out Blocker’s group as the melancholy burn-out Sergeant Metz and the fresh-faced Lieutenant Kidder.  Smaller roles include Q’orianka Kilcher (probably best-known as Pocahontas in Terence Malick’s The New World where she co-starred with Christian Bale), Timothée Chalamet (who filmed this throwaway part before gaining more recognition by virtue of becoming an Oscar nominee for the same year’s Call Me By Your Name), and a slew of “you might know their faces even if you don’t know their names” character actors like Stephen Lang, Bill Camp, Paul Anderson, Peter Mullan, and Scott Wilson.

Hostiles has a laudable central message, but offers little conventional “entertainment”, and a glacial pace and unrelentingly dreary tone can strain viewers’ concentration.  It will find an appreciative audience in certain circles, but mainstream audiences are unlikely to find this voyage worth undertaking.

* * 1/2