UK Release Date: 5th January 2018
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Scott Cooper
Writer: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemons, Ben Foster, Timothée Chalamet, Stephen Lang, Peter Mullan
Synopsis: A retiring soldier with a violent disdain for Native Americans is tasked with escorting a dying Cheyenne chief to Montana so that he can pass away in his homeland.
The western has undergone a transformation in recent years, from a largely unambiguous genre focusing on clear heroes and villains to something far more interested in the shades of grey lurking behind those archetypes. Whether it’s Slow West or Bone Tomahawk, modern filmmakers are exploring the potential to do different things with the established conventions and tropes. Scott Cooper, director of Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, is the latest writer-director to saddle up with Hostiles. In the process, he hands Christian Bale his best role in a very long time.
Bale stars as Captain Joe Blocker, who is a soldier hardened and emptied out by his violent conflicts with Native Americans over the years. He wearily reminisces with right-hand man Metz (Rory Cochrane) about the “good days” of their Native-slaughtering pasts. The next day, he is tasked with escorting dying Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their Montana homeland for his final moments. Joe initially refuses, but reluctantly follows the order, with a new crew behind him. Along the way, they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike), who has just watched Comanches murder her husband and children.
Cooper opens Hostiles in explosive fashion, depicting a Comanche attack on a secluded frontier home with unflinching brutality. This isn’t a film that wants its audience to be comfortable in their seats, shocking viewers expecting a typical western into sitting upright like meerkats. The genius of the movie, however, is in what Cooper does next. Cooper subverts the mission statement of that opening scene by changing lanes entirely and delivering a thoughtful exploration of the old ‘Cowboys and Indians’ dynamic.
This exploration is largely focused on Bale’s character, who begins the film by rounding up Apaches and disobeying his superior by refusing to escort a “savage”, with whom he has fought in the past. Hostiles is about changing attitudes and changing times, delivered through the lens of Bale as his relationship with Yellow Hawk, played with quiet power by Wes Studi, shifts over time. The star’s performance is taciturn and minimalist, but his simmering intensity is perfectly utilised to display a man visibly suffering from a profound internal struggle.
Much like Bone Tomahawk before it, this is a film that promises brutality and horror, but swerves in a more thoughtful and patient direction. Hostiles takes its time in allowing the supporting characters to become fully formed, with a particular scene between Jesse Plemons‘s inexperienced killer and Cochrane’s hollowed-out military man bringing to mind the sophisticated discussions around violence that formed the backbone of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Cochrane, in particular, has the most compelling arc in the entire movie, constantly bubbling away in the background.
Cooper’s methodical storytelling is aided by the jaw-dropping beauty of the landscapes, realised by his regular cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi. There’s the traditional iconography of dusty, wide open spaces, but also the claustrophobia of monsoon-drenched forests. Cooper is keen to remind his audience that the danger of this environment means violence is always just around the corner. He injects the film with swift, sharp moments of brutality and there’s no such thing as a safe character, however central to the narrative they may appear at first glance.
The joy of Hostiles is in how often it chooses to wrong-foot or left turn rather than taking the easy route. It’s a challenging movie with plenty to say about the difficulties of an entire, ingrained belief system shifting on the fulcrum of a historical turning point. Characters find their own former viewpoints repellent and they are forced to challenge the loyalties they have long held to be absolute. It’s a neat metaphor for the way the genre itself has undergone a paradigm shift away from the simplicity of good guys shooting bad guys to something more philosophically skewed.
Pop or Poop?
Scott Cooper has delivered perhaps his most accomplished film to date with Hostiles, which is anchored by a morally complex turn from Christian Bale and the natural beauty of the American West. It’s a movie featuring very few good guys that encourages the audience to take a moment to think, even among some moments of genuinely heart-stopping violence.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.